By Richard A. Lee
Now that the Iowa caucuses are over, what do we know about the 2012 presidential contest that we didn't know before voters in the Hawkeye State took part in the first major electoral event of the campaign?
The truth is we don’t know a whole lot more than we did before the caucuses. At best, the Iowa contest confirmed what we already suspected about Mitt Romney: Despite his frontrunner status, the former Massachusetts governor has yet to energize the Republican Party. He won Iowa by a mere eight votes and received just 24.6 percent of the total votes cast. These are not the types of numbers that build momentum.
Slight as the victory was, Romney can take some solace in the fact that he emerged as the winner after having trailed Newt Gingrich in most of the polls leading up to the caucuses. But Gingrich’s poor showing on Tuesday probably had more to do with the attack ads launched against him than with increased enthusiasm for Romney’s candidacy.
The caucuses also confirmed that the far right wing of the Republican Party will continue to play a significant role throughout the primary season. Rick Santorum has little chance of winning the GOP nomination, but the fact that a candidate with his conservative credentials, operating on a shoestring budget, managed to come within eight votes of winning Iowa illustrates the strength the far right has built with GOP voters. In Iowa, Santorum, Gingrich and other candidates who are more conservative than Romney received 73 percent of the vote among them. That can’t be comforting news for Romney with his meager 24.6 percent victory.
On the other side of the spectrum, although Democrats still have their work cut out for them if President Obama is to win re-election in November, the results from Iowa contained some encouraging signs. For starters, even though the caucuses were of little consequence for Obama, Democrats are boasting that 25,000 members of the party faithful turned out throughout Iowa Tuesday night to rally and plan for the upcoming campaign.
Of greater significance for both parties is the ideological gap between Romney and the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. In the general election, Romney would be a more formidable candidate than Santorum or Gingrich since his moderate positions would make him more attractive to independent voters. But to win the GOP nomination and build enthusiasm that can carry over into the general election, Romney may have to move further to the right to appease the more conservative members of his party. While this would help him win the primary, it could hurt his chances in November.
The new year, however, is just a few days old, and the road to the White House is a long one with many twists, turns and detours. The Iowa caucuses are an important part of the election cycle, but we must be careful not to read too much into them. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee won Iowa, and John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, finished a distant fourth. The New Hampshire primary is just a few days away, so we may be talking a whole new ballgame next week.
Stay tuned. It’s sure to be an exciting and entertaining ride.
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Richard A. Lee, who has more than 30 years of professional experience in journalism, government and politics, is an assistant professor in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University. Read more of Rich's columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter @richleeonline.