THE BLOG
01/04/2008 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The morning after: The GOP race gets much more confused

The unthinkable happened in the Republican race. Huckabee's triumph defies all the rules of politics, and especially everything we have learned about the Iowa caucuses, where organization is supposed to make and break candidates. Mitt Romney spent much of the year with comfortable leads; he massively outspent Huckabee and buried him with attack ads. And he had as great an organization as millions of dollars can construct. Not to mention that Huckabee spent much of the final two weeks committing mistake after mistake, an interminable list of errors on Pakistan and that infamous press conference about his negative ad. Yet, when all was said and done, Huckabee crushed Romney, 34% to 25%.

The entrance polls highlight the reason of Huckabee's victory. 60% of GOP caucus-goers were born-again or evangelical Christians, and the size of the evangelical turnout had not been fully expected. Among this group, Huckabee led 46% to Romney's 19%. Similarly, among the third of voters who said that the "religious beliefs of a candidate matter a great deal," Huckabee crushed his rivals with 56%. Romney was far behind at 11%. Among the third who responded that it only somewhat mattered, Romney and Huckabee were tied. It is impossible to know, of course, how much Romney's Mormonism was one of those beliefs that mattered so much to voters in a negative way.

The paradox of the Republican race is that the strength of Huckabee's Iowa triumph is also his weakness down the line, starting in New Hampshire. Huckabee did not reach out beyond his evangelical base. Among the 40% of voters who were not evangelical or born-again, Romney got 33% and Huckabee came in fourth at 14%, behind McCain and Thompson. New Hampshire is not Iowa, and the share of evangelicals will be very much inferior on Tuesday. But Huckabee supporters should not worry. The two states following New Hampshire -- Michigan and South Carolina -- are a natural base for him. Huckabee's populism is explicitly designed for states like Michigan and he will be very competitive there against the winner of New Hampshire. And South Carolina, of course, has a high proportion of voters for whom religion is an important issue.

Mitt Romney is now obviously quasi-fatally wounded. His strategy had been entirely predicated on winning both Iowa and New Hampshire and sweeping the rest of the states. And until the middle of November, it looked like he would get both without breaking a sweat as his rivals were conceding Iowa one by one. But his well-crafted plan crashed when Mike Huckabee appeared on the radar screen, followed up by McCain's resurgence. Romney is now going to New Hampshire with a crushing loss in Iowa, and his once-impressive lead in the Granite State has melted. Most polls are showing a toss-up with McCain, and the Arizona Senator is even leading in some surveys for the first time.

The one good news Mitt Romney got yesterday was McCain's fourth-place showing. Granted, he is only a few hundred votes behind Fred Thompson, but given how much buzz McCain had gotten in the past week the media had started to expect a solid third-place at this point. Naturally, that was an unfair expectation given that McCain barely campaigned in Iowa and that Thompson spent so much time there, but that is not how the expectation game works.

We are set for an epic fight in New Hampshire in the next five days. Romney and McCain had already been exchanging very pointed attacks and increasingly negative ads, with McCain's surprisingly more ad hominem than Romney's. But even that should change soon, as Romney's campaign is already raising the age question. Both candidates realize that they are likely to be out of the race if they lose Iowa, and desperation will only increase viciousness.

There are two very important dynamics to keep in mind in the coming days, one that should hurt McCain and the second should help him. First, Obama's triumph last night and his big results among independents is a worrisome sign for McCain. It guarantees that independents will in majority come out and vote for Obama in the Democratic race come Tuesday, and those are the very same voters that McCain is depending on for a win, those who ensured his 2000 victory. If Clinton had won Iowa yesterday, many of these independents could have thought the Democratic race to be all wrapped-up and they could have chosen to participate in the GOP primary instead, boosting McCain's total. The second dynamic is Giuliani's continuing collapse in the early-states; McCain's rise has paralleled Giuliani's drop in the past few weeks, while Romney has remained stable. With Giuliani increasingly removed from the New Hampshire primary and coming in at 3% yesterday, he could even be excluded from this week-end's debate, giving a chance for McCain to pick up his last remaining backers.

Even for a candidate who did not campaign, Giuliani's score has to be embarrassing. After all, McCain got 13% without campaigning that much more. While his strategy is based on bypassing the early states there is some threshold of viability he has to meet to not be ridiculed, and being further behind Ron Paul than you are in front of Duncan Hunter is not a good sign for a candidate that wants to wage a national campaign. That said, Giuliani got his wish yesterday with Huckabee's victory. The race will now stay muddied for a while, as there will probably be two winners out of the two first-voting states and a drawn-out fight in Michigan and in South Carolina. Giuliani now could have a fighting chance

As for Fred Thompson, he did get third place, but he is barely ahead of a candidate who did not air ads and who barely campaigned. Expect a new-round of stories as to when he is dropping out, and when he is endorsing McCain. Ron Paul and his 10% are a much more impressive story out of Iowa, as the candidate got a good share of the independents voters who turned out last night.

The bottom line in the Republican race is that it is now more than ever anyone's game; but the field will be much more clear on Tuesday night, as one of the two front-runners will probably fall out for good.

A longer version of this analysis was posted on the author's blog, at Campaign Diaries.