The tenth day of Christmas brought thesinglecell a whole new shiny present to unwrap: the Iowa Caucus.
I know, I know. Who wants to hear about politics on the tenth day of Christmas? Well, you’ve gotten quite the break from me, my dears, and this is when stuff kicks into high gear.
In this rather obnoxiously undecided Republican competition, Iowa was getting played like a pretty girl on prom night whose date had ditched her: everybody wanted a shot, to make their mark for the next few months of the popularity contest. If you’ve followed the race at all, you know that almost everybody has been in the lead at some point, except for Jon Huntsman (who didn’t even go to Iowa, banking it all on New Hampshire) and Rick Santorum.
Ah, but Rick Santorum… he’s been climbing. My prediction as of two weeks before caucus morning was that Santorum could make a really surprising move toward the front in Iowa. In fact, I thought he could take the win.
What’s that about? How does a guy who’s never polled higher than single digits wind up possibly winning? In my assessment, it’s about consistency. Literally every other candidate has either changed their minds about stances or spouted off a bunch of Crazy about something or other, and we’ve heard a lot about those changes recently. But we never hear that about Rick Santorum. If Iowa voters are Dennis Green, Santorum is the Chicago Bears. He is who they think he is.
If you like Santorum, you are going to get exactly what he tells you you’ll get. He’s not going to back down from his social conservatism, including his opposition to gay marriage and civil unions, his opposition to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, his staunchly pro-life stance, unflinching opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and his sometimes eyebrow-raising approach to how to lift the poor out of poverty. It’s not just that he voices these oppositions; it’s that he attaches them to everything he talks about. Where most candidates avoid talking about that stuff unless they’re pandering to a very specific audience, Santorum brings it up on his own, randomly, in front of anybody who’s listening.
I don’t fault him for that, by the way. I might not agree with everything he says, but I respect him for standing up. He runs on his Catholicism, not away from it. And, interestingly, evangelicals love it. On caucus night, he was getting the highest percentage of the evangelical vote. It used to be that Catholics were too far from fundamental for evangelicals. Santorum seems to have found the balance that allows him to take support away from fellow candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, the ones who were supposed to have the evangelicals in the bag.
The other advantages Santorum has are congressional experience and electability in a swing state (Pennsylvania). He’s pretty pragmatic about foreign relations issues and about spending. In other words… he’s not a total deficit hawk. He’s far less hawkish about money than the other candidates. The populist GOP message that everyone from Bachmann to Gingrich has tried doesn’t completely jive with Santorum’sapproach. In fact, he’s not a populist at all. And that’s why I thought he’d do well in Iowa. No surprises. No wavering. No bull.
At 9:30pm, I was laughing out loud. Romney, Santorum and Paul, all tied with 23% of the votes tabulated by then. Obviously, a caucus represents a significantly smaller number of votes than even a statewide gubernatorial election, but this three-way was hilarious to me. These guys could not be more different and still claim to be in the same party. Ron Paul is a Libertarian, for God’s sake. When it comes to most typically high-priority Republican ideals, he’s farther to the left than President Obama, but here are all these votes for him. That’s largely because of people who had changed their registrations for this caucus so they could throw their vote his way. Santorum, true to my suspicion, was pulling in votes because he’s steadfast and because he had spent so freaking much time in Iowa in the last year. And Romney was pulling the same percentage he does in almost every poll that’s done… because he’s a man of few extremes, still the one most likely to get the nomination.
If these numbers told us anything, it was that Republicans in Iowa had very different ideas for what they wanted to happen in the party. Someone who can beat Obama, even if they don’t like him (Romney) vs. someone who is a social conservative with a solid understanding of Congress (Santorum) vs. someone who is a big F— You to the establishment, demanding accountability for the economic meltdown and wanting the US to just stop fighting any wars already (Paul).
When the votes were all counted, Romney had eight more than Santorum. Eight. Votes.
What does that mean about this year’s run? In order to see it clearly, here’s a flashback to 2008: The Des Moines Register reported in a poll days before the caucus that Mike Huckabee was sitting at 32%, with Romney at 26% and the third place runner, John McCain, pulling 13%. Back then, Ron Paul was getting 9%, tied with Fred Thompson (you know, that actor who said, “Meh… alright, I’ll do it” but could not possibly have cared less).
Four percent of those polled in the days before the ’08 caucus said they were unsure or uncommitted. In the days leading to last night’s caucus, the Register’s Unsure category was nearly double. And the number of people who said they could still change their mind? Forty-one percent.
Don’t nobody like nobody in this race much. Not much at all.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee (champion of the evangelical vote in that election) wound up with 34% of the caucus vote. Romney garnered 26%. Ron Paul, in fourth, took 10%.
By late last night, there was no clear winner in the Iowa caucus, and it didn’t seem there would be. Santorum and Romney were trading mere dozens of votes back and forth for the lead. Paul had clinched a clear third place, while Gingrich finished fourth. Gov. Rick Perry placed ahead of Iowa’s hometown girl, Rep. Michele Bachmann (who apparently moved to Minnesota early enough to develop an impenetrable accent), and by midnight he had announced he was going home to Texas to think things over instead of going to South Carolina’s primary as planned. And by the next morning, Rep. Michele Bachmann was ending her campaign. (Perry announced via Twitter in the morning that he would, indeed, be in SC. I suspect he waited to see what Bachmann would do, hoping he could garner some of her votes.)
Only Jon Huntsman finished behind Rep. Bachmann, and he spent zero time or money in the state. But he may have had the best line of the caucus day. Long before the voting even began, Jon Huntsman told whomever would come out on top that there’s a big primary just ahead that could upend everything.
“Welcome to New Hampshire,” he said. “Nobody cares.”
On the tenth day of Christmas, I reveled in the joy of the freedom to decide who I think the best leader would be, and the fun of watching history unfold.