This year the story is not simply who wins Iowa. It’s what the numbers look like.
Last night Romney failed to raise his level of support significantly beyond what he’s been polling for months. While the Romney campaign tried to downplay expectations in Iowa, the truth is the candidate fully invested himself in the Hawkeye State over the past few weeks. Nevertheless, he failed to win decisively and establish himself as the clear front-runner. As a result, he’s lost the narrative.
While Santorum had a big night, he remains largely unknown to most voters. Once the negatives on him start to come out — as with Gingrich before him — voters are likely to learn that he also maintains a loose grasp of conservative principles, for instance, questioning the notion of “personal autonomy” and embracing a big-government conservatism a la David Brooks.
Looking ahead to a general election, and thinking about consolidating and motivating voters, enthusiasm for Ron Paul remains a problem for both Romney and Santorum.
Still, the big loss last night was for Rick Perry. He had an opportunity to defy the admittedly low expectations that have been set for him, come in fourth place (ahead of Gingrich) and pave the way for a surge in South Carolina. Failing to do that, the question remains whether he will drop out of the race before Jan. 21.
Last night Iowans were asking two questions: Who can defeat President Obama? and Who can turn around the current economic crisis? What’s clear is that there doesn’t seem to be a GOP contender who answers both questions.