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Romney, Santorum and Paul Top the Pack: What the Iowa Caucuses Reveal About the GOP Base

Romney and Santorum each finished with 25 percent of the vote, and Paul won 21 percent. But these numbers don't get at the underlying dynamics.

Photo Credit: C-SPAN


One thing you can often count on from the Iowa presidential caucuses: the unexpected. Tuesday night's vote was no exception, at least if you subscribe to the conventional wisdom proffered by corporate media and political experts, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive nominee, finished locked in a near three-way tie with two candidates deemed marginal by political wags: Rep. Ron Paul and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

Romney and Santorum each finished with 25 percent of the vote (although Romney is the technical winner by a margin of eight votes), and Paul won 21 percent. UPDATE: The Republican Party of Iowa revised its vote count on January 20, declaring Santorum to have won the Iowa caucuses by 34 votes.

But calling this a near three-way tie doesn't get at the underlying dynamics. What this race really came down to is a split among a formerly moderate northeastern former governor (who has since tacked to the right), and two overtly homophobic creatures of Congress who have said some pretty racist stuff. (Ron Paul's newsletters from the 1980s and 1990s were chock full of racist and homophobic utterances, and Paul says the 1964 Civil Rights Act should never have passed. And on Sunday, Santorum -- long famous for his 2003 comparison of gay sex to bestiality -- told a group of supporters that he didn't want to "make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money.") Both Paul and Santorum oppose abortion without exceptions for rape or incest, a position to which Romney, one pro-choice, has come around.

Now, if there had only been one overtly homophobic, racism-spewing candidate in the race, Iowa's Republicans would have handed him a huge victory tonight over the formerly moderate former governor. Put another way, if Santorum and Paul hadn't split the homophobic, racist vote, Romney would have been toast. Call it "Iowa nice."

And to think that Mitt Romney and his super-PAC only paid a mere $4 million in television advertising -- much of it designed, successfully, it seems, to knock Newt Gingrich out of the top tier in Iowa -- to achieve this result.

In the alternate-universe metrics of Iowa, Romney's tie with Santorum is a loss for him and a win for the former senator from Pennsylvania.

Iowa's Fickle Finger

The surprises served up by Iowa's Republican Party caucuses tend to act as a rebuke to the party establishment, sometimes with a result that seems kind of kooky: Pat Buchanan's near-win in 1996, the Rev. Pat Robertson's third-place finish in 1988. (President Pat Robertson? Really?)

What seems so shocking to the intelligentsia when the Hawkeye state delivers such head-scratching results is that Iowa is deemed to represent the most normal of normal places in America. It's the heart of the heartland, land of red meat served with mayo on white bread. If you think the normal American is white and midwestern, then you can't get much more normal than Iowa.

So, why, then, do those normal Iowa Republicans vote for such weirdos in their caucuses -- people like Ron Paul, for instance, who they know couldn't possibly win the presidency, let alone the nomination?

Earth to media: this is what the Republican base looks like. Freed from the constraints of reality -- as in, picking a candidate who can win -- this is who they'd love to see as their president: someone like Rick Santorum, who has made his primary mission the government control of women's reproductive organs, or Ron Paul, who has dressed a largely Confederate and radical Christian Reconstructionist agenda in the robes of liberty.

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