Mitt Romney: Mr. Plurality

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Adam mentions below that the prominent Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats has endorsed the fervently pro-life, “values”-centric Rick Santorum. My first reaction is to shrug, because Rick Santorum is not only a virtually hopeless contender for the GOP nomination, but also an extreme long shot even to win Iowa, despite the slightly tragic amount of time and energy he’s invested in the state. It’s not clear whether Vander Plaats’s seal of approval can deliver substantial votes for the thus-far hapless Santorum in next month’s caucuses. But the possibility raises a couple of interesting implications for the Iowa vote, and the GOP nomination fight generally:

One is that Rick Perry will need to work extra-hard to avoid extinction in the state. Finishing behind Santorum would probably not be survivable for the Texas Governor. Some recent Iowa polls have shown Perry several points ahead of Santorum, but in a PPP poll released Sunday they were tied at 10. I suspect that Perry, who has gone all-in in Iowa, may yet have enjoy a late surge there, one that would leave him with a chance to regain some real strength in South Carolina and then Florida. But it’s possible that Santorum will catch him, er napping, and steal away some of the evangelical conservatives Perry has been targeting in recent days.

The broader implication is that this splintering of the conservative vote is only working to Romney’s advantage. Incredibly, Romney now stands a decent shot at winning a state he once more or less boasted that he would be ignoring, and where about 75 percent of voters seem unwilling to support him. Even subtracting about 25 percent for Ron Paul would allow for a strong conservative to romp to victory with a near-majority of the Iowa vote. (This, presumably, was the grand ambition of Rick Perry’s Austin strategists back in summer.) But that conservative voting bloc now appears destined to be divided in futile fashion among Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and a nose-diving Newt Gingrich. As a result, Romney could win Iowa with a piddling plurality of about 25 percent–far from a show of decisive force, but a victory from which his gobsmacked rivals will have trouble recovering.

Not that Romney even needs to win the caucuses. He’d be fine with seeing Ron Paul claim first place–a result many Republicans (and, frankly, much of the media) will largely dismiss as a fluke, even as it smothers Gingrich’s fast-fading momentum. A Paul win coupled with a strong showing by Perry could make Romney nervous. But a Santorum boomlet makes that a little less likely. It also makes me think Romney’s chance at the nomination hasĀ  jumped back to nearly 70% on the Intrade market for good reasons.