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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 havewon 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.

 

(In fairness to the Republican base, I should note that Paul drew more heavily, according to CNN's entrance poll, from the ranks of self-identified independents and moderates/liberals than the other candidates. But the majority of his voters -- 57 percent -- were Republicans before they registered as such at the caucuses.)

 

The Winnowing Effect

In truth, the Iowa caucuses are less about winning and more about losing. While winners of the caucuses often fail to win their party's nomination, the losers often leave the state without a path for going forward. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came away with only 10 percent of the vote, tonight all but pulled out of the presidential contest, saying he was returning to Texas to think things over. [UPDATE:Perry announced on Wednesday that he would stay in the race to compete in South Carolina's January 21 primary.] But before he did that, he treated C-SPAN viewers to his halting recitation of a letter from a supporter who called him "a great man."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a native Iowan who won the Ames straw poll in August, finished with a miniscule 5 percent. While she did not concede defeat in her speech to supporters, Keith Nahigian, her campaign manager, told the Associated Press that he didn't know if she would stay in the race. [UPDATE: Bachmann announced on Wednesday that she was "suspending" her campaign.]

Perhaps the biggest loser of the night was Newt Gingrich, who just weeks ago was polling at more than 30 percent in Iowa, only to finish a distant fourth, with 13 percent, thanks to a barrage of negative ads launched against him by Ron Paul and Restore Our Future, Mitt Romney's super-PAC.

But Gingrich is not ready to exit the stage just yet; there's a meme developing that if Gingrich can hang on through New Hampshire, he has a shot at winning the big South Carolina and Florida primaries that follow suit. And so Gingrich made very, very nice to Rick Santorum in his non-concession speech, possibly in an attempt to position himself to pick up votes from practical New Hampshirites who might like to vote for Santorum, were it not for that little electability problem. Then he took a shot at Ron Paul, whose foreign policy he deemed "stunningly dangerous for the future survival of the United States," before laying into Romney.

Gingrich promised "a great debate within the Republican Party" over "whether this party wants a Reagan conservative who helped change Washington in the1980s with Ronald Reagan and helped change Washington in the 1990s as Speaker of the House, or we want a Massachusetts moderate who, in fact, will be pretty good at managing the decay but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any act to change the culture or change the political structure or change the government."

Then Gingrich promised that, going forward, he would respond in kind to attacks -- which should make the debates a lot more interesting than they've been.

On second thought, all that nice talk about Santorum might just be Newt's way of getting under Mitt's skin.

The Winners

Rep. Ron Paul certainly had a good night, surviving a torrent of opposition research that revealed the racist newsletters and his links to far-right extremists, including a Christian Reconstructionist pastor who thinks, in accordance with biblical law, gay men and adulterers should be executed.

Paul's ground organization was reported to be strong, and filled with dedicated volunteers -- and it showed. He used his victory speech to tout his most popular theme: his opposition to the war in Afghanistan and American intervention abroad, and to boast of his endorsement by the singer Kelly Clarkson. But he also touted his belief in a return to the gold standard for U.S. currency, and his love for the libertarian economics touted by Austrian writers Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mieses.

Richard Nixon once uttered a famous line in reference to the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, who made the case for deficit spending. "We are all Keynsians now," Nixon said, according to Paul. In response, Paul quoted himself saying, "We are all Austrians now."

It was a pretty amazing line coming from a guy known for his opposition to Israel, some anti-Semitic statements in his newsletters and blessed with a cadre of followers who are invested in a conspiracy theory about Jewish bankers.

Rick Santorum, who won the support of at least one of the religious right's would-be kingmakers, Bob Vander Plaats of the FAMiLY Leader, courted the evangelical vote heavily, and it paid off. Santorum campaigned with the Duggars, the couple whose 19 children (all born of one mother) form the basis of a reality show, "19 Kids and Counting." (Santorum's opposition to reproductive justice doesn't end at abortion; he also opposes contraception; he and his wife have seven children, who they homeschool.) And today, Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition -- a network of politically active churches and religious organization -- turned up at a Santorum event, though declined to make an outright endorsement. 

"Game on!" Santorum said, after striding to his podium to the strains of orchestral music. In his victory speech, Santorum spoke movingly of his grandfather's journey to America to escape Mussolini's fascism which he then compared to life in America under Barack Obama. Decrying what he called the president's promotion of "more Medicaid and food stamps," he said that was "exactly what my grandfather left in 1925." Because government assistance is really just like totalitarianism.

Santorum's speech seemed to be delayed by a stand-off with the Romney camp on who would get to make the closing stemwinder and claim the victory. Romney dug in and went last with a hyper version of his stump speech, which has him reciting the words of "America the Beautiful" and attacking Obama for being, as he sees it, an entertaining lightweight who is a nice enough guy. (Can you say race code?)

Romney was clearly rattled by having only mustered a tie with Santorum, whom he congratulated, along with Paul, for their victories, before declaring himself the winner. His tone was anxious, and he seemed jumpy. As Salon's Alex Pareene tweeted, "Romney right now is acting like a dude on coke trying to explain what is so awesome about a Steely Dan song."

While Romney recited song lyrics, Santorum departed for New Hampshire. Which he means to win. Electable, schmelectable. it's the winning that counts, and tonight, Rick Santorum is a winner.
 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. She also writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan
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