Mitt Romney won – by a thread – the first Republican primary. This is very good news for him, of course, also because it was far from an obvious result. The Mormon candidate from Massachusetts won among a largely Evangelical electorate: 57% of primary voters in Iowa this year declared themselves to be Evangelicals. This could be a sign that Romney’s religious beliefs may not be a great handicap for the Republican electorate, even if it remains a weakness vis-à-vis other candidates competing for the support of the American Christian Right. Second, the rich, New England-style, former businessman from the East Coast managed to win in a Midwest, substantially rural state. He thus proved that he is capable of attracting votes beyond his traditional supporters. As a result, Romney leaves Iowa as the Republican front-runner, and also considering the defeat he suffered from Mike Huckabee in Iowa in 2008 this is a significant success for his campaign.
Yet, there is also some bad news from Iowa for Mitt Romney: his share of votes, at 24,6%, is almost exactly the same amount of the 2008 primary, despite the fact that his 2012 campaign is much stronger and better organized. Moreover, two other candidates obtained almost the same percentage of votes: former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (just 8 votes short) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (with 21%). Such results clearly demonstrate that Romney does not enjoy the support of the majority of Iowa – and presumably American – Republicans. In fact, the Iowa primary confirms the existence of a sort of “anti-Romney” GOP electorate, which so far has supported almost any candidate with better conservative credentials. This electorate first cheered Sarah Palin as a possible candidate; it then looked favourably at Michelle Bachmann’s Tea Party-style positions; last September, it gave Rick Perry a surprising boost in the polls; in October it fuelled the Herman Cain meteor; in November, it turned Newt Gingrich into a serious candidate and did the same with Ron Paul in December; just days before the Iowa caucus, the anti-Romney voters raised the profile of another candidate that had been systematically weak in the polls, Rick Santorum.
Having said this, Romney remains by far the Republican candidate who is more capable of reaching out to independent voters and challenging president Obama – already a key consideration in the calculus of the GOP establishment. New Jersey governor Chris Christie – who is regarded by some analysts as a likely last-resort Republican candidate in case of a primary impasse – has already endorsed Romney, together with Minnesota governor and former aspirant Tim Pawlenty, as well as Senator John McCain (who got an honourable 46% of votes against Obama in the 2008 presidential elections). The former Governor of Massachusetts can also claim a solid background in both the private sector and government, and seems to be sufficiently competent on economic issues – which clearly top the agenda of current US politics. Having run in the 2008 primary elections can be a further advantage vis-à-vis his Republican adversaries, coupled with his proven fundraising skills. The fact that he run in the primary elections in 2008 makes Romney better prepared and organized than other candidates when it comes to managing a complicated, expensive, long term campaign. In particular, he seems to be spending considerable resources on some of the states that will vote later, not just the early ones such as Iowa and New Hampshire – which may give him enough time to persuade the vast anti-Romney crowd in the Republican camp.
Looking at the alternatives on offer, Iowa has done nothing to dispel the doubts about the Perry candidacy while confirming the expected obstacles to the Gingrich campaign – although the former House Speaker will probably hang on to test his strength in the Southern states. As for the libertarian candidate, Ron Paul, he certainly got good results in Iowa with 21% of the votes, but his strong Tea Party basis is not enough to offset his objective weaknesses: his age (76), his lack of appeal among independent voters, and his long standing enmity with the GOP establishment. Rick Santorum was indeed a surprise, but he invested almost all his financial and staff resources in Iowa, as this was a make-it-or-break-it test for him. He passed it, but from now on the game will be different, given that Santorum was barely known in other states until a few days ago.
All things considered, Mitt Romney’s front-runner status is thus likely to be strengthened in New Hampshire, one of his strongholds where he enjoys a considerable edge in the polls.