Thursday, January 05, 2012

Mitt Romney and the meaning of Iowa

There have been two notable trains of thought regarding the Republican Iowa caucuses this week. The first is the saturation media coverage of what is the 2012 presidential race’s first meaningful contest. The second is that the media coverage is overblown and gives undue credit to a relatively unimportant event. The doings of a few hundred people in middle America has devoured television time, web pages and column inches while the impasse over the straits of Hormuz goes almost unrecognised. (photo: Reuters)

The truth is as always, somewhere in the middle. Barack Obama won the Democratic Caucus in Iowa in 2008, setting himself up for a surprise win over Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side winner Mike Huckabee pushed hard for nomination but was eventually beaten by John McCain who finished fourth in Iowa with just 13%. The importance of Iowa is not necessarily to win, though Obama showed it was handy enough, but to survive. Anything over 10% gives delegates a second chance.

The fact the caucus finished in “near deadlock” with Romney ahead of Santorum by eight votes will be of small value by the time of the GOP convention. Despite being first to vote, Iowa is last to decide. The Iowa caucuses are town meetings or “gatherings of neighbours” that have a straw vote to elect delegates to a county convention. The state convention is one of the last in the country. Iowa elects just 25 Republican delegates to National Convention, just one percent of the total. But Iowa garners a lot more than one percent in energy of candidates and media time.

2012 third place getter Ron Paul said his 21% was a good showing which “kept him in the race”. But last placed Michelle Bachman realised that the five percent of Iowans that cast votes for her was not enough to launch a nationwide campaign on and she quit immediately. “Last night the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice and so I have decided to stand aside,” she said.

Texan Governor Rick Perry is also on the ropes after his 10 percent showing. There were rumours he too would quit but he said he intends to fight on. "We're going to give the people of South Carolina, New Hampshire and America a choice in this election, and that's what this process is all about," he said. He said his opponents were all Washington insiders whose fault the country was “broken” and they needed an outsider like him as an alternative.

It may be wishful thinking but Perry has deep pockets and can afford one bad and possibly two bad results. It was significant Perry pushed South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire suggesting even a bad result in the northern state would not dislodge him from the race ahead of the bellwether South Carolina race – which has elected every successful Republican candidate since 1960. The South Carolina Primary is on 21 January so Perry has just over two weeks to go for broke. Newt Gingrich, with 13%, is in strife too with little money and just five days to overtake Romney in New Hampshire.

While Paul pronounced himself satisfied, Rick Santorum will be delighted. The oft-quoted reason is that of “momentum” leading into the New Hampshire Primary and the following states. Santorum’s close second place was a result of spending a lot of time in Iowa, and he will now attract a bigger buzz and more money. But it is unlikely he will not have the time to recreate his strategy and equally important, the space from the media, to perform like this in New Hampshire. The neologism “Santorum” is likely to become a crippling issue too if he continues to do well.

What Iowa really told us is this year’s Republican presidential nominee is likely to be the frontrunner Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is the one candidate Obama might struggle to beat and he did lead Obama in the polls on several occasions during in 2011. In his favour is the fact he is telegenic and considered to be a party moderate and he can berate Obama over managing the US into a possible double-dip recession.

The charge labelled by Ron Paul in 2008, that Romney was a flip-flopper is also losing its relevance in 2012. Voters can see he changes his mind alright, but just that so does everyone else and when the facts change, what else do you do? Romney is still a classic Republican in favour of Reaganomics and cutting taxes to promote growth.

The big question is whether America is ready to elect a Mormon as their president. Mormons themselves preferred Jon Huntsman as their candidate which is likely to be a positive to Romney. Most Americans look uneasily at their missionary tradition and the close Church-State relations in Utah. Romney’s east coast ties keeps him away from any Salt Lake City baggage, though he did lead the 2002 Winter Olympics organising committee and turned a potential fiasco into a success.

Romney underplays his religion and is also at pains to stress the commonality of Mormonism to mainstream Christianity. But writing in 2005 about his 2008 bid, Amy Sullivan said his religion was a political problem. Sullivan said one in five voters wouldn’t vote for a Mormon and while some of this was a “fuzzy sort of bias” it was real enough to be a problem. It could particularly be a problem with his own party’s evangelic base that have serious doctrinal issues with Mormonism’s claim as the fully realised strain of Christianity - the "latter-day saints." Keeping his religion out of the picture may yet be Romney’s biggest challenge as the year pans out.

No comments: