Three-Quarters of Iowa GOP Voters Reject Romney, as Santorum Surges

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The Nation

Three-Quarters of Iowa GOP Voters Reject Romney, as Santorum Surges

Mitt Romney said on the eve of the Iowa Caucus vote that he would win the frst Republican presidential competition.

Instead, the former governor of Massachusetts ended up in a nip-and-tuck race with Rick Santorum, a candidate who wasn't even considered to be a contender a month ago.

After the better part of a decade of camaigning for his party's presidential nomination, after spending millions of dollars from campaign accounts, and having millions more spent on his behalf by Super PACs, Romney could only manage an eight vote "victory" over a candidate who just weeks ago was polling less than the margin of error.

Romney's "win" put Santorum in contention. That does not mean that the former senator from Pennsylvania is likely to be the Republican nominee against President Obama next November. But it does mean that Romney will have to devote the next few weeks, maybe the next few months, to seeing off a challenge from a credible conservative.

"Game on!" shouted Santorum, as a wildly-enthusiastic crowd of backers cheered the former also-ran's arrival as the not-Romney candidate that right-wing Republicans have been seeking since the opening of the 2012 GOP contest.

How many Republicans are looking for a not-Romney? A lot, if the Iowa results are any indication.

Three quarters of Iowa Republicans rejected Romney, long presumed to be the Republican most likely to face Obama, in Tuesday's caucus voting. "No matter how Romney's establishment allies try to spin it, tonight's results show conservatives have strengthened their opposition to Mitt Romney's candidacy," announced veteran conservative strategist Richard Viguerie. "The fact that conservative candidates garnered three times as many votes as Mitt Romney did speaks volumes about how narrow and shallow Romney's support is and the likelihood that the nomination will not be settled until the GOP Convention in Tampa."

With 99 percent of the Iowa Republican Caucus vote counted,  Romney and Santorum were virtually tied, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul was only narrowly behind them. 

Santorum, a former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania who ran as a "full-spectrum conservative," drew the most support from evangelical voters and  other core-conservative voting bases. Paul drew solid support from independents, who turned out at almost double their level of participation in the 2008 Republican caucuses. That year, many independents were drawn to the Democratic competition, where Barack Obama faced Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and other contenders. This year, Obama faced no serious competition for the Democratic nod, and independents attended the GOP caucuses for Paul. Many of them backed Paul because of his steady opposition to an interventionist foreign policy, a point Paul made in a victory speech that highlighted his call for bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and other countries around the world. 

Overall Republican Caucus turnout was only slightly better than in 2008. when 119,000 Republicans voted. Remarkably, were it not for the indeoendents -- who made up roughly a quarter of this years caucus crowd -- the Republican total would have dipped below 100,000. "When you take out the independents who showed up to back Ron Paul, this was actually a lower turnout than Republicans saw in 2008," said conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who explained that Republicans "don't particularly care for (Romney)."

Trailing behind the top three top contenders in Iowa were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose early-December lead in Iowa polls collapsed under a steady assault from negative ads paid for by Super PACs aligned with the Romney campaign, and two other social conservatives who were once Iowa frontrunners, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congressman Michele Bachmann.

Gingrich will stay in the race, not to win but to batter Romney for a few more rounds.

Bachmann should have quit but has yet to lose interest in the sound of her own voice. She'll be gone soon.

Perry will beat her to the exit, however. He announced Tuesday night that he will return to Texas to reconsider his candidacy. He will come to the conclusion that said candidacy is finished.

Perry's departure will provide more good news for Santorum, as the end of the high-profile Texan's high-spending campaign could free up a few conservatives in New Hampshire and quite a few conservatives in South Carolina to back his candidacy. 

Ultimately, Santorum faces an uphill climb. He won't have Romney's money or organization. But he isn't Romney. That should keep him in contention for weeks, perhaps months. And even if he does not block Romney, Viguerie suggests that the ongoing race could create an opening for another, potentially stronger, conservative to make a late entry into the GOP race. "The vast majority of Republican primary voters want to vote for a principled, small government, constitutional conservative," said Viguerie. "With 75% of the vote available, the door is now open to a new conservative standard bearer who can unite the party in the way Romney has failed to do."

That may just be Viguerie's pipedream.

But it is, by any reasonable measure, Romney's nightmare.

Despite the bravado he displayed Tuesday night, the Iowa results created a serious problem for Romney, who in recent days not only anticipated an Iowa win but tried to switch his focus to attacking Obama. Now, in the face of a steady conservative challenge, Romney will have a hard time taking the fight to Obama.

Obama, for his part, swept the Iowa Democratic caucuses Tuesday night. In roughly a dozen precincts, "uncommitted" slates backed by  Occupy activists and the Iowa Health Care Not Warfare Campaign achieved credible finishes. 

But the real race was always on the Republican side. And, there, the raw numbers in what was effectively a glorified straw poll of all caucus goers kept changing through the night. But the patterns were steady, as the vast majority of Republican caucus voters opposed Romney. 

Here's where the results stood with 99 percent of the vote counted: 

Santorum 25 percent 

Romney 25 percent 

Paul 21 percent 

Gingrich 13 percent 

Perry 10 percent 

Bachmann 4 percent 

Network entrance polls had Santorum beating Romney and Paul among Republicans. 

Santorum was winning among self-described "very conservative" voters. 

Paul was winning among self-described "moderates" and "liberals." 

Paul was winning big among independents, who made up almost a quarter of caucus goers. Among indepenents who caucused as Republicans Tuesday night, 44 percent were for Paul, 18 percent were for Romney, 13 percent were for Santorum. 

Among the roughly one third of voters who told pollsters this was their first time attending a GOP caucus, Paul led with 37 percent to 21 percent for Santorum and 15 for Perry. 

Among voters under age 30, Paul was winning 48 percent, while the oldest candidate was only getting 11 percent among voters over age 65. 

Those were encouraging numbers for Paul. 

But his final total, while impressive, did not rival Santorum's.

Paul got a ticket out of Iowa, but that was expected.

Romney also got a ticket out of Iowa, which was also expected. 

What was remarkable was that Santorum got the third ticket. So it was that the also-ran finished as a winner. 

Santorum leaves Iowa as the not-Romney. And, in a Republican Party that has no taste for Romney, that's a coveted title.

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