The United States presidential race has been news on the margin until now. The past few months has been about a stream of curious and more curious Republican candidates.
The Iowa caucus has brought it into focus. As traditionally happens, the field has been narrowed to three candidates — though Newt Gingrich cannot be completely ruled out. The steady stream of primaries that follows will winnow this further. And then the comparisons to the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, will start. At which point the race for the world’s most powerful post will have truly begun.
Though Romney squeaked by with a mere eight votes, there is a strong case for saying he is the Republican winner in Iowa. He has clocked a steady 20 percentage points in Iowa since October. He picked up a few more as Gingrich began to fade. Given his past, disastrous record with Iowan voters, Romney did well — especially in the moderate eastern part of the state.
Yes, he drew with religious conservative Rick Santorum. The latter has been awarded a laurel wreath by the media because he beat expectations. But the Iowa caucus has traditionally been fertile ground for the Christian right. Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee and other preachers swept the state, thanks to Iowa’s northwest Bible corner.
Santorum’s surge was accomplished by cannibalising the support of fellow religious rightist Michelle Bachmann. Santorum didn’t widen his base, he just consolidated it. Which is why, like other Bible thumpers, there is a good chance he will fade in the primaries that follow. Note: he has struggled to top 5% in New Hampshire, the next state to vote. That figure will now rise thanks to Iowa, but not by much.
The libertarian Ron Paul is likely to poll well in New Hampshire. But his support in Iowa was helped by the fact that a caucus allows even non-Republican voters to cast a ballot and a lot of the students, independent and Democratic voters who backed him will find the door closed during the more formal primaries. South Carolina, the third state, will prove difficult going.
What is interesting is how the three Republican toppers neatly encapsulate the three wings of the party. Pro-business millionaire Romney is almost a caricature of a Northeast corporate Republican. Santorum carries the cross for the religious right, strongest in the South. Paul is the epitome of a small government, social liberal of the libertarian West. Which is why Gingrich is still in with a chance.
The winner of the primaries will ultimately be the Republican candidate who can best appeal not only to his wing but also big chunks of the other two. Romney looks the most likely. His pro-market sentiment gives him a foot in the libertarian door. But he will have to be an extremist on abortion and gay rights to win the Christian right. The problem is that, in practice, on these issues he has been anything but. This remains his key vulnerability: other types of Republicans doubt he’ll be true to his platform once in power. Which leaves the door slightly ajar for someone with a unifying big picture. Which is the type of thing Gingrich, in his heyday, was all about.
For the Republicans, this is a mouth-watering chance. As a person, Obama is almost the perfect president. Unfortunately, the environment around him is toxic. The economy continues to sputter. It’s growing but jobs aren’t. Obama is admired but seen as out of sync with his people. He is too liberal at a time when the average US voter is shifting rightward.
A recent Gallup poll asking Americans to rate themselves ideologically pinned the average at 3.3 on a liberal-to-conservative scale of 1 to 5. Obama was rated a left of centre 2.3. His approval rating recently jumped but still lags at 42%. That is not good news. Generally, a president’s approval rating mimics his vote percentage in a US election. The problem for Obama is that while he still has a good chance of winning, his chances are now dependent on factors largely out of his control. A Euro-meltdown would probably be fatal. As would a major terrorist attack. It’s all that close right now.