Is there anyone not frustrated by Mitt Romney’s narrow win in the Iowa caucuses? Conservatives are disappointed because they recognise that Mr Romney, who used to favour legal abortion and was for Obamacare before it was called that, is only pretending to be one of them. Seventy-five per cent of Iowa’s Republican voters wanted someone farther to the right. But because their votes were divided among a large field of weak candidates, the only moderate running in their state came out on top.
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Liberals are disappointed because Mr Romney has moved closer to inevitability and is the strongest potential challenger to President Barack Obama. This shows up clearly in head-to-head polls, which put Mr Romney tied with or slightly ahead of Mr Obama, while other Republican contenders trail by 10 points or more. It was hard for Obama campaign officials to suppress their glee last month when Newt Gingrich, the only even remotely plausible alternative to Mr Romney, briefly ran ahead of the pack. But even they knew this was a momentary aberration. Short of Republicans committing collective suicide by picking someone else, Democrats would like to see Mr Romney win the nomination after a protracted struggle that would deplete his financial resources, sully his image and drag him farther to the right. That now looks less likely.
Journalists are most disappointed of all because Mr Romney gliding to victory is a weak story. Were the press any other industry, cynicism about its self-interest in promoting marginal challengers would prevail. Local television stations, many of them owned by giant media companies such as Fox, count on election-year revenue bumps from political advertising in important primary states. If the nomination contest is effectively over by, say, the Michigan primary on February 28, money will remain on the table. But for reporters, rooting for the underdog, any underdog, it is really a matter of wanting a more dramatic story. The strait-laced frontrunner winning Iowa and New Hampshire before securing the nomination early on does not count as a compelling narrative. Hence the media’s pretence of taking seriously a succession of non-viable candidates with outlandish views.
Thanks to all this, there is tremendous reluctance on all sides to call the outcome before “the voters have spoken”. So expect to hear more and more about less and less likely alternatives to a Romney victory. Jon Huntsman, the only candidate yet to enjoy a moment of popular enthusiasm, could do better than expected in New Hampshire. Once Rick Perry joins Michele Bachmann in dropping out, conservative sentiment could coalesce around the unlikely survivor Rick Santorum. Given how unloved Mr Romney is, someone new could still enter the race. Anything is possible, of course. But in the end, the GOP is overwhelmingly likely to nominate Mr Romney because it is his turn and because he is the most electable candidate available.
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The party Mr Romney is likely to lead into battle has, however, revealed itself in a diminished state – dominated by its activist extreme and deaf to reason about the country’s fiscal choices. To survive a Republican debate you are required to hold the incoherent view that the budget should be balanced immediately, taxes cut dramatically and the major categories of spending (the military, pensions and healthcare for the elderly) left largely intact. There is no way to make these numbers add up and the candidates mostly do not try, relying on focus-group tested denunciations of Mr Obama and abstract hostility to the ways of Washington.
Above every other issue, the candidates pandered about how thoroughly they would ban abortion. Mr Paul, an obstetrician by training, blanketed the state with ads making the dubious claim that he once saw doctors dispose of a live baby in a rubbish bin. (If so, why did he not intervene?) Mr Gingrich proposed throwing out the constitution to defy judges who invalidate anti-abortion legislation. In the closing days of the campaign, Mr Perry augmented his opposition to abortion to include cases of rape or incest. Mr Santorum toured with members of the Duggar family, who are featured in the reality-TV programme “19 Kids and Counting”. Like the Duggars, Mr Santorum believes contraception is “not OK”.
The Tea Party has clearly nudged the centre of politics to the right but the notion that it stood for something new on the right has all but dissolved in favour of a familiar range of radical, not really conservative tendencies. Iowa clarifies this factionalism by presenting it in exaggerated form. There is radical libertarianism, represented by Ron Paul. There is theocratic moralism, offered in evangelical Protestant flavours by Ms Bachmann and Mr Perry and in a Catholic version by Mr Santorum. There is the idea of ideas-based politics, represented by Mr Gingrich.
When these alternatives fall by the wayside, what will remain is the attempt to actually win a national election, represented by Mr Romney.
The writer is editor of Slate.com