Mitt Romney received eight more votes in the Iowa caucuses than Rick Santorum. The media is spinning this as if it matters who actually receives more votes. It really doesn't. This is a battle for delegates -- a long one. It's not a winner take all election to serve as Iowa governor, senator, or whatever. Thus, it's fair to conclude that both Romney and Santorum won; Bachmann, Gingrich, and Perry lost; and Paul remains a libertarian insurgent who cannot win the GOP nomination because he is too far out of step with the modern GOP.
So, with those parameters set, what exactly does all this stuff mean? Let's start by comparing and contrasting the Iowa results from 2008 to the 2012 results.
Remember the narrative from 2008: Mitt Romney suffered a devastating blow in the Hawkeye State. His millions of dollars spent organizing and advertising were for naught. He allowed an unfunded and unknown upstart named Mike Huckabee to get to his right, and in so doing created room for John McCain to get to his left in New Hampshire.
In 2012, Romney won an effective tie for first place. The conservative, “anti-Romney” vote was spread across four other candidates; Rick Santorum won the most, but still not enough for a clear victory. What’s more, Santorum’s win was due in large part to being the only “unvetted” conservative in the race. He has baggage of his own, little funding, almost no institutional support, and (unlike Huckabee) cannot count on the South embracing him as a native son.
Very different implications from the Iowa caucus. But here’s the most amazing similarity: in both years Romney scored 25 percent of the caucus vote.
That’s not the only common thread. Indeed, let’s drill it down from top to bottom, and in so doing we’ll understand the Iowa results and come to a better grasp of the state of this race.
The demographics of the two contests were basically the same. To appreciate that, consider this chart:
As we can see, striking similarity. There are some differences – more independents in 2012 than 2008, for instance – but by and large we see roughly the same percentages of voting groups. Most notably among age groups, which had big implications: the Paul campaign’s hope of enhanced turnout among younger voters basically failed to materialize.
Not only were the voting strength of the groups basically the same, so was Romney’s share of these groups. Consider the following chart (for clarity’s sake I have italicized the cells when Romney did better).
My back of the envelope calculation suggests that most of these differences are inside the sampling margin of error. Not all of them, but most of them. So, Romney basically pulled the same electorate in 2012 as he did in 2008.
Then why was tonight basically a win for him? The answer was: the anti-Romney vote was scattered this year, compared to 2008 when it by and large concentrated around Huckabee.
To appreciate this, compare and contrast Huckabee’s 2008 performance against Santorum’s 2012 performance across the same groups.
Clearly, Huckabee did systematically better than Santorum, although a few of these are inside the margin of error. Romney’s advantage was that the rest of the 2008 Huckabee vote was spread across Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry.
Thus, Iowa is a metaphor for the whole 2012 Republican nomination campaign. It is not as though Mitt Romney has increased the breadth or depth of his support relative to 2012. At least not yet. Instead, his advantage is due primarily to the weakness of his opposition.
After all, not only did Romney lack a credible challenge from his right in Iowa, he is essentially unchallenged from his left, unlike in 2008 when he had to contend with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Next week in New Hampshire looks to be a total rout, in no small part because there is no John McCain-style candidate in the New Hampshire race.
Nobody to his left. No dominant figure to his right. Romney is in the catbird seat. That’s not an endorsement, just a statement of fact.