The Iowa caucuses are just a day away, and it’s hard to see how Mitt Romney can lose. Let me clarify. It’s not hard to see how he can lose Iowa, but it is hard to see how Iowa can help lose him the nomination.
To grasp how kind Iowa is being to Mitt Romney, compare his position there with those of two previous candidates to whom he often is compared: John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. In 2004 Kerry’s strongest opponents in Iowa were John Edwards and Howard Dean. Dean was riding a wave of anti-war anger, building an unparalleled, Web-based, grassroots movement, and raising ungodly sums of cash. And as a former governor of Vermont, he had strong support in neighboring New Hampshire.
Had Dean beaten Kerry in Iowa, it would have been extremely hard for the Massachusetts senator to recover. Kerry’s other main opponent, John Edwards, had a strong base among working-class Democrats and a natural advantage in the third contest of the primary campaign, South Carolina. A victory in Iowa and he would have been the instant frontrunner, too.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton had it just as bad. Edwards was now a more seasoned and better-organized candidate, with a strong regional base in the South. Barack Obama was a once-in-a-generation wunderkind who was capitalizing on being the only major candidate to have opposed the Iraq War. Once Obama won Iowa, Clinton immediately lost her frontrunner status. Had Edwards won, the same would have been true.
Mitt Romney, by contrast—if the polls can be believed—is battling Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Paul has real strengths: a fanatically loyal core of supporters, a plain-spoken authenticity, and an isolationist, libertarian message that resonates with many conservatives who have grown embittered not only by big government at home but by big government abroad. I suspect Paul will be in this race until the convention. But the better he does, the more aggressively the Republican establishment will unite behind Romney. In this way, Paul’s candidacy better resembles Jesse Jackson’s in 1988 or Jerry Brown’s in 1992 than it does the candidates against whom Kerry and Clinton competed.
Like Jackson and Brown, Paul will expose the gap between his party’s establishment and its actual voters. But there’s no recent precedent for a candidate who won his party’s nomination without gaining some foothold among party elites. So if you’re Mitt Romney, Ron Paul is a pretty good opponent to have.
Romney’s other major Iowa competitor, so it appears, is Rick Santorum. What does Santorum have going for him? Mostly that Republicans appear to have evaluated and rejected every other potential conservative alternative to Romney—Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich—and they may be getting around to Santorum too late to get buyer’s remorse.
But precisely because Santorum has gotten so little scrutiny, it’s likely that his support will sink after he endures the barrage—from both Romney and the media—that will surely follow a strong showing in Iowa. Were Gingrich or Perry to run strong in Iowa, it would prove the resilience of their support. But if, as expected, Santorum beats them, it may just be because he hasn’t faced the assault that all the other major candidates have. And there’s a lot to assault. Voters don’t usually nominate presidential candidates who lose their Senate seats by 18 points.
Had Kerry come in third in Iowa, he would have been left for dead. Hillary Clinton did come in third and never recovered. Romney, by contrast, can come in third and remain the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination, largely because of the weakness of the candidates likely to come in first and second. In a sense, therefore, he’s already won.