Mason City, Iowa

Music Man Square in Mason City is named for Meredith Wilson, the native son who wrote The Music Man. It’s not a square in the traditional sense. It’s a building whose interior is mocked up into an elaborate—and quite lovely—version of River City’s Main Street. There are fake storefronts and brick sidewalks, with the polish of a Disney World production. (You can see for yourself here.) You may recall that The Music Man is a story about a good looking, smooth talking phony who comes to town and swindles the locals. Whoever thought it would be a good idea for Mitt Romney to hold an event here—he entered from the far end of the fake Main Street and gripped and grinned his way through a throng of perhaps 400 people—either has a dark sense of humor or no sense of irony.

Whatever the case, Romney looked the part (of the front-runner) and put on a steady performance in what has been an uneven week for him. On the one hand, he hasn’t had any catastrophic problems and his institutional support seems to be gaining by the day, as the Republican establishment continues to rally around him.

But on the other hand, there have been glimpses of the Romney voters tend not to like. Always eager to go negative, Romney likened Gingrich to Lucille Ball. (The most striking attack from the Romney camp actually came two weeks ago. With things looking bleak for Romney at the caucuses, John Sununu, one of the campaign’s top surrogates, trash-talked Iowa, saying, “Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.” It’s one thing to attack rival candidates; it’s another to go after actual voters.)

Then there was Romney’s promise to a college student that, if he were elected president, the kid would get a job. And he’s been insistent that Romneycare’s individual mandate was a “fundamentally conservative” policy. And, finally, there’s been Romney’s claim that he would be happy to vote for Ron Paul, if Paul became the nominee—which carries with it not just the problem of Paul’s newsletter and conspiracy baggage, but also the whiff of pandering.

Yet even with all of that, the polls have been good for Romney all week. Gingrich’s support has leveled off in Iowa. Rick Santorum has gotten a second (first?) look, jumping into third in Iowa, pushing Gingrich and Perry down, and further diluting the anti-Romney vote. Romney himself has maintained his place in the low-20s. And the thoroughly unelectable Ron Paul has soared into first place.

The received wisdom seems to be that a Paul victory in Iowa is good news for Romney. But this doesn’t make all that much sense.

Certainly, a Paul win in Iowa would be better for Romney than a Gingrich or Perry (or Santorum) win. But try this thought experiment: If it was November 2010 and you heard that Mitt Romney in 2012 would play very hard in Iowa, spend a lot of money and time there, and not only finish behind Ron Paul, but get a lower percentage of the vote than he did in 2008 (when he got 25 percent), wouldn’t you have seen that as a very bad outcome for him? Wouldn’t it have set off all sorts of alarm bells about his candidacy?

People seem to assume that eventually voters will simply give up and follow Romney; once the voting starts, the entire process will cascade and voters will suddenly realign and begin supporting Romney at levels no voters ever have in his previous electoral runs. And maybe they will.

But that’s not always how it works. In May 2008, Democratic voters were told again and again that the contest was over and that Barack Obama would be their nominee. It wasn’t a mathematical certainty, but it was highly likely and the Democratic establishment clearly craved it.

That month, Democrats held five primaries. In three of them, voters rejected Obama in favor of Clinton. In Indiana, Clinton won a close split. In Kentucky, Clinton won by 35 percentage points. In West Virginia, she beat Obama 67 percent to 26 percent, a margin of 41 points.

Obama won the nomination, of course. But he did so with the coalition of groups he had already demonstrated an ability to win with. May 2008 is a reminder that voters don’t always do what they’re told. Even when the establishment tells them. Even when the outcome is supposedly inevitable.

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