Politics

01.03.12

Media Hype About Mitt Romney’s Iowa Showing Is Wrong

The pundits suggest a three-way tie is bad for Mitt. Peter Beinart on what the talking heads are getting wrong—and how far, how fast the ex–Massachusetts governor has come.

When watching election-night media commentary, always remember: pundits have a bias. They want an exciting race.

Mitt Romney sailing merrily toward a Republican nomination that many considered foreordained is not exciting. So all over cable television talking heads are claiming that Romney’s inability to win more than a quarter of the vote in Iowa constitutes a loss.

Huh? Iowa is such a bad state for Romney, dominated as it is by Christian-right activists who have long distrusted him, that he considered not even competing there. He’s much stronger in New Hampshire, where economic conservatives predominate, and in the big states where what you need is gobs of money. For Romney, a three-way tie for first place in Iowa is manna from heaven. It’s especially lovely because the two people he’s tied with—Rick Santorum and Ron Paul—probably can’t win the nomination. Santorum has no money and has hardly faced a negative ad. Paul is loathed by virtually the entire GOP establishment.

To understand how well Romney has done, consider his success against the bigger-name conservatives. If anyone had told pundits a year ago that Romney would win four times as much support as Michele Bachmann in Iowa, or six months ago that he’d get two and a half times as much support as Rick Perry, or one month ago that he’d get double the support of Newt Gingrich, they would have been astonished. Now commentators are suggesting he didn’t do well enough.

Republican presidential history is littered with moderate frontrunners who got creamed in Iowa—George H.W. Bush in 1988, John McCain in 2008—and still won the nomination. In 2008, Mitt Romney invested heavily there and lost by 9 points. This year, he kept expectations low and managed a tie for first place with two candidates who almost certainly can’t beat him.

That may be boring, but it’s pretty darn good.