In the excitement of the photo finish in the Iowa Republican caucus, we should not ignore the questions raised by the results.
The first question is the meaning of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's failure to break the 25 percent ceiling. Amazingly Romney received six fewer votes than he did four years ago (30, 015 vs. 30,021). As a result, his percentage of a slightly increased turnout dropped from 25.16% to 24.5%. This was not just a narrow eight-vote victory over former Senator Rick Santorum it was a small step backwards among Iowa voters after four years of courtship and campaigning.
The Iowa campaign was a spectacle of a progression of ABM (anybody but Mitt) candidates: Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and finally Santorum. With Bachmann now gone and Perry perhaps close behind, their support is unlikely to migrate to Romney. Will this show up in New Hampshire where Romney has a huge lead in the polls. Will Santorum catch on there? In South Carolina? Could former Governor Jon Huntsman surge in New Hampshire as the next ABM candidate? Stay tuned.
The second question is the enthusiasm of the GOP electorate. Compare the slight increase in GOP caucus participation between 2008 and 2012 when supposedly the party was fired up to defeat President Obama to the huge jump in Democratic caucus participation in 2008 for a party determined to take back the White House. Where was the predicted surge in participation by independents that fueled the Democratic surge in the caucuses and nationally in 2008. Why the relative apathy? One reason might be found in comparing the fields. In 2008 there were four sitting senators, Biden, Dodd (who moved his family to Iowa) and two super stars, Clinton and Obama. Also in contention were New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former Senator John Edwards who, like Romney finished second four years earlier. The 2012 GOP election field pales by comparison. Further, with Bachmann gone, there is no clear favorite of the Tea Party that so energized the GOP in 2010. And the 20 percent of the caucus attendees that gave Rep. Ron Paul his strong third place finish seem disinclined to support Gov. Romney or any other candidate. Given all this, how much of an enthusiasm gap is likely to exist in November?
The third question coming out of Iowa is Iowa. The State GOP and Democratic Party will try to sell the notion that Santorum's success proves the validity of the Iowa ground game model that was the standard approach for significant caucus efforts since Jimmy Carter in 1976 . But Michele Bachmann had a strong ground game and local roots that failed her. And Santorum caught on only after the penultimate ABM candidate, former Speaker Newt Gingrich was toppled from his short-lived front-runner status by savage attacks from a pro-Romney "Super PAC." A similar thing happened on a bilateral basis in 2004 when the front runners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt began mutual attacks that reduced the other's support and opened the way to John Kerry and John Edwards. It seems that the nominating process has devolved into a series of endless national debates, television ads and outside groups "independently" attacking opponents. This does not bode well for the traditional Iowa caucus process or the quality of our elections. And thank the Supreme Court for the Citizens United decision, its own contribution to the march to dysfunctional government.
So while Iowa gave us some answers about the fractures within the Republican Party, it left many unanswered questions. Some may be answered in the next few months. But some may not be answered until November.