To maximize their odds of reclaiming their hold on the White House, the Republican establishment believes they need two things:
• To nominate Mitt Romney; • To effectively end the Republican nominating process as soon as possible.
Last night's results from Iowa lower the odds they will get either.
In fact, what we saw in Iowa last night was the Republican base gagging on the presidential candidate the Republican establishment is trying desperately to cram down their throats.
Romney -- and Republican Super PACs -- spent millions of dollars trying to convince Republican caucus-goers that Romney should carry the Republican banner next fall. But in the end, 75% said no. MSNBC's Chis Matthews went so far as to argue that Romney is being rejected by the Republican electorate the way a body rejects foreign tissue.
In fact, most rank and file Republicans are so repulsed by Romney that they have test-driven virtually every possible alternative in the show room. Rick Santorum's turn came just at the right time to catapult him into the position of the "anti-Romney" -- giving him the right to carry the anybody-but-Romney banner in the battle ahead.
Here are the reasons why the Iowa results are such bad news for Republicans:
1). Sometimes when a candidate has a hard time winning the support of his base, the reasons actually make him more electable in a general election. That's not true of Romney. The major factors weighing on his candidacy are just as toxic with persuadable general election voters as they are with voters in the GOP primaries.
In interviews and focus groups, anti-Romney voters use words like "phony," "fake," "robotic," "cold." They think Romney has no core principles -- that he will say anything to be elected -- that he's a flip-flopper. One Republican went so far as to say, "He's Kerry without the medals." That, of course, is an insult to Kerry -- who has strong core principles -- even though Karl Rove's consistent attacks on his character gave a not-so-popular George Bush a second term in 2004.
And it doesn't help -- even with rank and file Republicans -- that Romney is, in fact, the candidate of the Republican establishment -- which, let us remember, is basically Wall Street and the CEO class. Romney is the poster boy for the 1%. He is the cold, calculating guy who made his fortune dismantling companies and laying off workers. He is a guy whose painted-on smile is set in concrete as he hands you your pink slip. Mitt Romney is about as empathetic as a rock.
2). The fact that one anti-Romney contender consolidated enough votes to fight him to a virtual tie in Iowa was a big blow to Romney's chances for a quick victory. His forces had hoped to keep his opposition divided and appear as the obvious front runner even with 25% of the vote. Instead, Rick Santorum comes out of Iowa with the "big Mo."
Santorum will carry that momentum into New Hampshire where he will begin to pick up the votes of the "also-rans." Most Perry and Bachmann votes simply aren't going to Romney. Since everyone thinks that Mitt is way ahead in his adopted home state of New Hampshire, Santorum is under no pressure to win. Romney is left competing with his own expectations -- anything but a blowout will be considered a defeat.
If Santorum's numbers materially improve from his pre-Iowa single digits -- as they most certainly will -- he will continue to carry that momentum into South Carolina where he should win handily. That's particularly true if Perry officially drops out of the race and Bachmann continues to fade.
3). Gingrich as much as announced last night that he would be playing blocking back for Santorum. He will attack Romney viciously in the coming debates -- while having nothing bad to say about his apparent rival for the "anti-Romney" mantel. A wounded Gingrich could be a great deal more dangerous to GOP prospects than frontrunner Gingrich was a few weeks ago.
4). Ron Paul has every incentive to continue his crusade to reshape America in Ayn Rand's libertarian image. Paul probably hit his high water mark in Iowa, but he certainly has no reason to leave the race anytime soon and shows every inclination to continue to use his platform to promote "Austrian" economics and the gold standard. He has plenty of money and a solid core of activist support.
5). Much of Romney's pitch to voters has been premised on his "electability" and "inevitability." At the very least the "inevitability" argument is now gone.
Politics and momentum are often about self-fulfilling prophesies. The argument that "Romney is bound to be the nominee, so get with the program" is now toast -- at least for the near term.
6). The new Republican delegate selection rules make it more likely that the nomination process will drag on for some time. Many states that used to have "winner take all" primaries now allocate delegates in proportion to the percentage of each candidate's votes.
If Romney continues to top out at 25% or 30% -- which nationally seems to be his ceiling -- it's hard for him to wrap up the nomination in the near future. You need 50% plus one of the delegates to seal the deal. If Paul and Santorum continue in the race -- not to mention Gingrich -- that isn't going to happen any time soon. And if Santorum continues to surge, all bets are off.
7). From the Republican point of view, nothing good can come from a long, drawn-out nominating process.
His opponents will continue to pound Romney for being a phony flip-flopper -- a charge that will devastate him in a general election.
Romney will continue to tack to the right to compete for base voters. That will lead to more and more positions that disqualify him with big chunks of the electorate -- like his recent statement that he would veto the DREAM act.
The DREAM Act is an iconic issue for Hispanics. According to a recent Pew Poll, ninety-one percent of Hispanic voters support the DREAM act and 51% consider a immigration the most important issue facing their community. In a general election, Romney -- or any other Republican -- simply can't win a majority of electoral votes without states with heavy Hispanic voting populations. Yet to win primary votes from Perry, Romney positioned himself as the most anti-immigration Republican candidates in recent American history.
Santorum has positions on reproductive rights that are way outside the American mainstream. Not only does he oppose abortion in virtually any circumstance, he wants to give states the right to ban contraception. That's right, contraception -- which is used at one time or another by 98% of American women. A long primary fight with Santorum will inevitably require Romney to tack in his direction on these issues as well.
8). Before it's over, the Republican race will inevitably get more negative. Romney and his Super-Pacs used a fusillade of negative ads to stop Gingrich in Iowa. Presumably they will try to do the same to Santorum -- and maybe even Paul. Santorum, with the help of his lead blocker Gingrich in the debates -- will inevitably have to fight back.
In fact, the odds have just increased that the Republican nominating circus is about to become a vicious, no-holds-barred dog fight.
No, Wall Street's "masters of the universe" and the other Republican poobahs cannot be pleased with the outcome of last night's caucus in Iowa.
One thing is for sure, it's not time to take down the GOP "Big Top." This show will be in town for some time to come.