Sign of things to come or false positive?

Wow, that was exciting, wasn’t it? Just eight votes in it! But to what extent is the Iowa caucus really a foretaste of a to-the-wire battle of high drama throughout the rest of the Republican primary process?

It’s a really obvious point but one that hadn’t hit home for me until a conversation with an American (i.e. Genuine Yank) colleague yesterday: what happened in Iowa may’ve been a primary, but it was not a particularly democratic election, it was a caucus.

People – Republicans in this case, plus a few independents taking advantage of Iowa’s same-day registration rule – gather in houses and public buildings and discuss the merits of the various candidates. The Republican caucus is different to the Democrat one in that the former does (mostly) involve secret rather than public voting, but nevertheless in a far more febrile atmosphere than that of the polling booth.

James Kirchick, an editor at The New Republic, writing here in Prospect magazine, made essentially the same point as my colleague:

The caucus system itself is something of a scandal; it is not a secret ballot but rather a uniquely Midwestern shaming ritual in which citizens must spend hours on end “caucusing” among themselves until, via a process of elimination, they have decided upon a candidate.

As a result, Kirchick points out, the Iowa poll is a poor predictor: Mike Huckabee in 2008, for example, and televangelist Pat Robertson beating Bush Snr. in 1988.

With that strong health warning, here are two different (and differing) sets of opinions on what the Iowa caucus results mean for the rest of the race.

The New York Times thinks that the vote, essentially a tie between Romney and NonRom Santorum (the latest in a ‘rotating cast’), reflects and reinforces the deep ideological divisions within the GOP, and suggests a close and aggressive ongoing campaign, despite Romney’s much stronger organisational base.

Writing in The New Republic, Ed Kilgore gives voice to the other side of the argument: that Iowa was a bigger win for Romney than the final tally suggests, because the only candidate with the resources to match Mitt – Rick Perry – did so badly (fifth at the time of writing, behind Gingrich).

In this Kilgore agrees with my current favourite blogger Ari Melber, who writes that Santorum’s team is in no way set up to fight a national campaign (they missed the chance to get their man on telly in primetime etc.) and that Ron Paul is also soon to be a spent force, because Paul polled much better amongst independents than self-identified Republicans, and the primaries to come don’t give independents the same status as they get in Iowa.

Personally, I’m hoping that the NYT has it right and that this is set to be a ring-ding bout of many rounds. Because frankly that’s a lot more fun.

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