Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won last night in Iowa, but did he also lose?
For Romney, New Hampshire remains as close as a sure thing as one can have in this incredibly fluid primary process. He’s polling in the low forties there with the other candidates relegated to fighting for scraps. But caucus night in Iowa exposed Romney’s most fatal flaw: enthusiasm, or rather a lack thereof.
Romney’s support has a low ceiling, and no matter if he can knock down one conservative candidate (as he did with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) another one will pop up to be the non-Romney (former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum). And we saw from last night’s results that the non-Romney candidate is real — Santorum nearly tripled his support in a matter of weeks.
Romney made a play for Iowa in the last month because there was an opportunity for him there — he’d all but conceded the state earlier in the primary season because it looked like one of the more conservative candidates would win there and Romney would pick up momentum in his stronghold of New Hampshire. Well one of the more conservative candidates, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum almost did win Iowa last night, but not because he and Romney were running neck and neck for a while — Santorum literally came out of nowhere in the last ten days of campaigning in Iowa to nearly take the state.
But that was Iowa, where a more conservative electorate was despretely searching for their standard-bearer. That couldn’t happen in more moderate, Libertarian-leaning New Hampshire, right? The numbers say the Granite State is much more forgiving for Romney, but the race has fundamentally changed, and he’s going to have to fight.
Santorum himself bet it all on Iowa. He’s been mired in the 1 to 3 percent range for essentially the whole GOP campaign in New Hampshire, he hasn’t been campaigning there, but he’s picked up a few points in the new Suffolk University tracking poll of the state. The former Senator could get a few more as he gets more profile from his late run at Iowa, as there’s a little room to grow amongst undecideds in the state. He could definitely benefit by some of the other candidates bowing out — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) may just do that, freeing up some conservative votes.
The problem? Bachmann’s got about 3 to (maybe) 5 points of support to give, Perry even less. Santorum could consolidate all of those votes and stil not be in the double digits.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) also competes in New Hampshire, just as he did in Iowa. But it’s hard to see how the Texas Congressman turns last night’s results into momentum in the state — he’s been in the mid to high teens there as Romney has dominated.
The key is this: Romney has a higher ceiling in New Hampshire, but it still very much seems like a ceiling. He was slightly vulnerable there when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was surging — Newt started hitting the twenties in support and it brought Romney down, and the trend lines looked to be on a collision course if Gingrich hadn’t crashed and burned. The idea of the non-Romney exists in New Hampshire too — it’ll just be a different alternative.
And right now, the man who most hopes to benefit from all these moves is former Ambassador and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
There’s no way around it — getting support has been no easy task for Huntsman. He’s framed himself as a moderate in a party that wants nothing more than a strong conservative to take it to President Obama. Huntsman doesn’t play that game — he’s measured. But he’s essentially lived in New Hampshire for months, having the state to himself while the rest of the field battered each other in Iowa. It’s possible that he and Santorum could get in a tussle over the next two days to see who is going to present the best challenge to a wounded Romney, but they’re also on two sides of the spectrum and aren’t likely to be competing over the same votes.
The question coming out of Iowa is whether the ceiling over ‘Mr. Inevitable’ holds, or whether it comes crashing down.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.