Sign of things to come or false positive?

January 4, 2012

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.


Wannabes: start your engines

January 3, 2012

What a great day to start a new blog about US politics: the day of the Iowa caucus – immediately significant because of being the first Republican Party primary. How significant in the longer term rather depends, one suspects, on the quality, durability and breadth of appeal of the man or woman the Grand Old Party (GOP) picks to square off against Obama in November.

As the Washington Post puts it: the final full day of campaigning ‘felt part county fair, part reality television’. In other words Newt Gingrich appeared in a town called Independence alongside the world’s largest tractor. In what is bound to become a recurring theme for Wannabe Yank, US politicians do not specialise in subtle statements.

In anticipation of 120,000 Iowans gathering in homes, schools and other public buildings – what a weird concept, how alien! – here are the two best things I read yesterday about the GOP race.

First: admirably level-headed analysis from Ari Melber, writing in The Nation. As Ari points out:

The Republican presidential race actually begins Tuesday night. It is worth remembering that this is the first time we will hear from the voters—that everything up to this point, while presented as The Campaign, was actually a long, voter-less preseason consisting primarily of candidates, politicos, donors and reporters talking amongst themselves.

The implication of this, says Ari, is that no-one knows what the result will be. The first primary merely highlights the unpredictability hat’s been evident for some time.

Thus far, surge has preceded rapid onset irrelevance with astonishing frequency. Seemingly sensible ‘now the GOP has really settled on a front-runner’ predictions quickly looked silly. I should know, I made one myself quite recently about Newt Gingrich. Doh! Or, maybe, not, who knows.

All we can hope for to aid predictive capacity are good solid facts, and Ari has a few, in particular this one about the depth of penetration of Romney’s campaign, hidden amidst ABC poll findings from a couple of weeks ago:

Romney’s own campaign leads the entire Republican field in direct contacts with likely caucus-goers: 31 percent say they have heard from the Romney campaign by phone or in-person, a notch above the 29 percent who have heard from Ron Paul’s famous machine, and double the 15 percent for Santorum’s campaign.

Second: of morale-boosting rather than factual value, this comment piece in The Economist, in which the paper – an avowedly centre-right one – bemoans the state of the race. Tea Party imposed ideological restrictions of the most dogmatic kind are deeply problematic, says the Grand Old Paper:

Elections are decided in the middle. If the Republicans choose an extreme candidate, they can hardly be surprised if independents plump for Mr Obama, or look to a third-party candidate.

The Economist’s analysis is that there are just two ‘get out of jail’ scenarios. Either the race effectively finishes early in favour of Romney, who can then focus on demonstrating his presidential qualities. Or a stalemate prevails and no-one wins, thereby tempting a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie to ride in, knightlike, to the rescue.

Now the latter seems more than a little fanciful to me, but there’s no denying the truth of the closing line of the article: ‘It is a sad commentary that this late in the day “the right Republican” does not even seem to be running yet’. Sad for the GOP and The Economist, potentially rather happy for everyone else…

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