Well here we are folks, it’s the first primary in the 2012 presidential election. In many ways, it should all begin here; after all, as John Huntsman reminded us recently, ‘they pick corn in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Cute line and only offensive to the 122,000 Republicans that may have voted for him out of 3,400,000 Iowans. Cute and sometimes true. This year things may get interesting. The press are trotting out a nice line to the effect that no Republican has won Iowa and New Hampshire and that at present, Mitt Romney is on course to do just that. Let me stress the last two words; ‘just that.’ Recall his winning margin of 8 votes in Iowa? When LBJ won an election in Texas by a similarly close margin he was tagged ‘Landslide Lyndon’ for the rest of his career (or ‘Lyin’ Lyndon in less polite society). Such is the onus on the front runner, to stay running and to stay at the front.
The problem for Mitt Romney (who appears to have been running for president since, well, forever), is that his fellow Republicans don’t appear to be convinced in any way shape or form by his candidacy. He ‘won’ the Iowa Caucus by 8 votes, and in the process gained the same amount of electors as second place Rick Santorum, who spent far less in the state and who may well have been denied victory by the stone age voting system employed in the state. (Did anyone tell them it’s now the 21st century?)
As a virtual favourite son Romney was 20 points ahead in the New Hampshire polls and a sure thing to win, thereby becoming, as the press have mentioned, the first Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire. His capacity to win both states is something of a geographical fluke in reality; having thrown money around like it was going out of fashion in Iowa and relying on his local status for victory in New Hampshire. Truth be told, you don’t get many Republicans in Massachusetts.
One of the tricks in an election is to peak on Election Day, as George W. Bush arguable did on Election Day 2004. It really doesn’t matter how popular you are the following day, just as long as more people vote for you on Election Day than anyone else. Romney may well win tonight, indeed, he probably will, but the margin of victory will be telling. Until last week he was 20 points ahead and cruising. Then came Iowa and since then his numbers began to slide and slide and slide. Romney therefore faces the problem of being more popular two weeks prior to the big day than on the day itself, which raises the challenge of what George Herbert Walker Bush called, the Big Mo, or in language adults would use, Momentum.
In coming in 8 votes clear in Iowa and with his numbers cratering in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is singularly failing to develop any momentum to carry him into the far from welcoming southern states of South Carolina and Florida. Perception is everything in politics, and the perception/truth of the matter, is that currently, anywhere between 70-75% of Republican voters are voting for someone else. Out of a weak field of candidates, Mitt Romney is constantly the least bad candidate, a point beautifully captured in the season premier of Saturday Night Live.
In many ways Romney and Obama have a similar situation; both are lucky in terms of their opponents.
If the Republican right could coalesce around an agreed upon candidate (as high ranking members of the party are meeting to arrange) then Romney’s candidacy could be doomed. However, if the 75% of Republicans who won’t vote for Romney continue to split their preference between the likes of Gingrich, Paul, Perry, huntsman and Santorum, then Romney can keep on making gaffes about (“I like firing people”) all day long, before losing in the general election to an even luckier candidate, President Barack Obama.
Today, then, is all about the final number. It would appear impossible for Romney not to win the vote tonight. It is, however, entirely possible, that just like Iowa, he could win the battle of the vote and lose the war of perception