In 2008, with conservatives embarrassed and demoralized by 8 years of George W. Bush as President, about 120,000 Iowans attended the Republican caucus (compared to 230,000, almost twice as many, Democrats in a state where the parties have roughly equal numbers registered). In 2012, with a party mobilized and seething over the presidency of Barack Obama, about 120,000 turned out for the Republican caucuses–a number swollen by thousands of Independents who attended in order to support Ron Paul.
That means fewer Republicans roused themselves last night than in the year of their sorrow, 2008. It also means that Obama may also have been a winner last night. Oh, Mitt Romney won, sort of. But he did no better than in 2008, when he lost. He was luckier this time, with a split field of conservative opponents. And his inability to inspire Republicans to show up may be the most important long-term result of the caucuses.
It is true that Romney is now the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination. It is also true that he could be a very formidable candidate against Obama in the general election–if some conservative Christian or a significant Libertarian doesn’t mount a major 3rd party challenge. But his handlers have to be worried now that a certain number of evangelical conservatives simply won’t show up when election day rolls around. It may be his slickness, his CEO style, his mormonism, his flip-flops–who knows? But, suddenly, the Republicans have a passion gap to match the waning of enthusiasm for the President among Democrats.
The second most important result from the caucuses was the no-holds snittery that has suddenly overwhelmed the party. Newt hates Romney. He called Mitt a liar yesterday. John McCain hates Rick Santorum. He endorsed Romney–in 2008, one of his least favorite people on the planet–today because Santorum endorsed Romney in 2008. And Ron Paul hates Gingrich. Here is Paul’s epic rant on the subject of Newt’s military service:
“I don’t want to fight a war that’s unconstitutional, and I’m the dangerous person? You know, when Newt Gingrich was called to service in the 1960s during the Vietnam era, guess what he thought about danger? He chickened out on that, he got deferments and didn’t even go…
“So right now, he sends these young kids over there to endure the danger, and the kids coming back, the young people coming back and the ones in the military right now, they overwhelmingly support my campaign. We get twice as much support from active military personnel than all the other candidates put together. So, Newt Gingrich has no business talking about danger because he is putting other people in danger. Some people call that kind of a program a chickenhawk and I think he falls into that category.”
The other important development out of Iowa was the rise of Rick Santorum, about which I’ll have more in my print column tomorrow.