Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iowa's split decision

The state of Iowa sent several messages with the results of the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. With the literal split decision rendered by Iowa voters, effectively sending both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to the winners’ circle, people in the Hawkeye State said it all loud and clear:

In these days of Facebook and Foursquare and Twitter, you can keep your social media, you can keep your media-built strategies and flyover interactions with the public. In Iowa, good, old-fashioned handshake retail politics is very much alive and well.

Santorum’s insurgent campaign used that strategy to great effect by Tuesday night. The candidate, who visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties and attended more than 350 fundraisers and public events in the past several months, cashed in big at the caucuses. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum and Romney both garnered 25 percent of the total vote. Only eight votes separated their raw totals.

But there’s more than one way to look at a photo finish. For Romney, landing about 25 percent of the vote, give or take, has been standard operating procedure for months now. In numerous opinion polls in recent months, and certainly in recent weeks, Romney has had a prohibitive lock on that 25 percent-tops figure. It was pretty much his ceiling of support, but with a badly fractured field, that was enough.

The real story now is Santorum.

After months of grinding it out in a county-by-county offensive, Santorum has been building his favorables in utter disregard of the conventional wisdom that says a bare-bones candidacy can’t win. With next to no money and a pickup truck instead of a sleek logo-bedecked motorcoach, the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner took an analog approach to building a grassroots network in Iowa, and it’s worked with stunning efficiency. His peak has dovetailed with the actual start of the primary season.

And with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (in fifth place in the caucuses) announcing plans Wednesday morning to head back to Texas for the Frank Reappraisal of the Campaign that always precedes pulling the plug, Santorum nicely fills the desires of evangelicals looking for the next viable candidate whose principles line up with theirs.

Romney, on the other hand, eked out a victory Tuesday — if you can really call it that — after years of periodic appearances that started during his failed 2008 bid for the presidency, and months of arm’s-length campaigning this time out, with TV ads, an online presence and hordes of volunteers and surrogates for the candidate, who was until a few weeks back, largely otherwise engaged.

Santorum can celebrate this triumph in a number of ways. One of the ways to savor this co-victory is through an economic lens: Santorum gained, on a relative shoestring, the same kind of electoral victory that Romney paid many dear millions of dollars to achieve. In the end, Romney, the man with Experience In the Private Sector, directed a well-oiled, deeply-capitalized campaign that got the same result as a campaign that’s financially running on fumes.

◊ ◊ ◊

We might have known something was up when the Des Moines Register poll found that 41 percent of Iowans were undecided just days before the caucuses. despite the boss’ channeling of Howard Dean (“We’re gonna win this thing!”), despite all his campaign’s firepower — the ground game, the burn rate, the polished profile — there was still a sense of the campaign lowering expectations. Forty-one percent. That many Iowans shouldn't be undecided if your campaign is really doing its job.

The reasonable expectation would have been that the Romney 2012 juggernaut would blow Santorum away in Iowa, and do so by orders of magntiude. The fact that he didn’t puts some things in doubt for Team Romney — among them the idea that he could cakewalk to the nomination on the strength of his possessing the ephemeral quality of Electability. With an economic efficiency that should make a private equity guy like Romney sit up and take notice, Santorum offered evidence of a return on investment that’s so far superior to Romney’s own.

And with a populist clarity that the Romney campaign had better take notice of, Iowa sent another message, the same one other states on the primary calendar will send, in their own way, between now and early March:

You’re not the boss of me. We don’t coronate anyone. And you — the party leaders, the media, the big-check donors, the croupiers on Wall Street and the politicians on Capitol Hill — you don’t decide who is and who’s not Electable.

We do.
Image credit: Santorum: CNN.

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