The endlessly hyped Iowa caucus process has finally drawn to an inconclusive close. Here’s what acres of media coverage extending over months and months and months of stultifying boredom and pointlessness have told us: Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain and Rick Perry aren’t going to be president of the United States. Nobody much thought any of these people were going to be president a year ago, and a year from now only a handful of political junkies will remember how the various figures campaigns self destructed or otherwise failed to catch fire.
Here is something else we all knew a year ago and still know today: many people in the Republican Party don’t want to nominate former Governor Mitt Romney, but it is very hard for them to find a credible candidate to run against him. Former Senator Rick Santorum is the latest flavor du jour auditioning for the role of the credible not-Romney candidate. The others were briefly taken up by voters hungry for an alternative despite their obvious flaws; once they had a good look at them the voters concluded that the flaws (of character, back story, judgment or electability) were real and put them back down on the shelf. So far, there is no evidence to show that this won’t be Senator Santorum’s fate, but we shall see. Life is full of surprises.
In any case, the turmoil and trouble of Iowa told us almost nothing that we didn’t know six months to a year ago. I hope the media outlets who covered this in such cash burning, mind numbing detail are pleased with themselves. Otherwise it would all look like a terrible waste of money and bandwidth.
Like much else in traditional American political rituals, the Iowa caucus process is collapsing under its own weight. Many news accounts in the last few days spoke of more journalists than voters being present at campaign events; this coverage could be dialed back sixty to eighty percent and the country would be if anything better served and better informed.
2012 did see something new. The ridiculously extended presidential campaign process in the United States now features an extended clown car crash derby as a kind of opening event. This year’s Iowa caucus process was like those early American Idol episodes in which the truly terrible and desperate get their moment on stage (yes, Donald Trump I am thinking of you — among others). The caucus process was an audition this time around and half the fun was watching so many egotists and poseurs get the hook. Those who enjoy the spectacle are welcome to it, but the over-investment in meaningless campaign rituals by the legacy media has gone way beyond farcical. Perhaps this will be remembered as the campaign that jumped the shark; the public boredom with this hollow show may grow to such a point that increasingly cash-strapped editors and publishers will cut back on the number of correspondents sent to track campaign busses over the hills and dales of what remains a surprisingly beautiful midwestern state.
There was, of course, a story behind the huckstering and the noise in Iowa: the Tea Party’s quest for a real leader. Many politicians would like to become Mr. or Ms. Tea Party: from Sarah Palin on, many have tried and, so far, all have failed. (Interestingly, no national figures want to be Mr. or Ms. Occupy Wall Street; some flirted at the beginning with the movement, but not even marginal Democratic political players seem to want the OWS label now.)
What’s clear at this point is that the Tea Party has not yet produced a credible national leader from its ranks. This is partly because the most visible wannabe leader is Ron Paul, and his views are so polarizing and, on foreign policy in particular, so alien to the instincts of many Tea Party-affiliated voters, that while he can split the movement he can never lead it. There are other reasons why the Tea Party is so poorly led; nevertheless, unless Senator Santorum can do what Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all could not, then the most powerful politicial movement in recent GOP history will have failed to impose its choice on the party in 2012.
But while political reporters were fixated on Iowa, the contours of the 2012 election began to swim into focus. The driving force in the country remains a deep unhappiness with the status quo and with both parties, but ten months out from the election, this mood looks as if it will hurt Democrats more than Republicans.
Not that Republicans will have a fun year.
Watching the political squabbling in Washington and the uninspiring performances of both parties, many Americans have been wishing for a plague on both their houses.
Those wishes seem to have been granted. The Republican presidential primary contest has so far been as bad as a plague for the GOP. The serial rise and fall of ultimately unsatisfactory GOP candidates makes the incumbent look better by contrast even as the candidates field-tested attack ad themes the Democrats can turn to next fall. President Obama’s numbers are up a bit even as short-lived GOP favorites crash and burn. Throw in the House payroll tax kerfluffle, and the GOP sometimes looks as if it is trying to drive voters away.
But last month’s news that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson won’t seek re-election reminds us that the Democrats also look snake-bit this year. Holding onto the Senate looks hard and might even be out of reach.
Many things can and will happen in a year, but as it looks now, the GOP seems to be reasonably secure in the House, poised to take over the Senate, and facing no worse than a 50/50 chance of taking the White House.
Many things could change that picture in the next ten months. The economy could start to grow, allowing President Obama the chance to talk about “morning in America.” A European collapse could cause people to rally around a familiar president. A war with Iran or some other national security emergency could increase President Obama’s support.
But assuming that things run on as they do and that the Republican nominee does not self-destruct, President Obama is almost certain to do worse in 2012 than he did in the unusual election year of 2008. After all, for several months now the polls have showed a slim voter preference for a ‘generic’ Republican over President Obama, and Governor Romney is as close to a generic Republican as we have seen in this cycle.
If 2012 doesn’t offer any big surprises, North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana will probably revert to their traditional GOP presidential preference. Florida and Ohio also seem to be drifting away from the current White House team. In 2008, President Obama could have lost all those states and still had a comfortable margin of victory. Because of reapportionment after the 2010 census, if those states go red, President Obama will lose if any other state (except for tiny Delaware) jumps ship. Several states look to be good candidates for this role; they include Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and (if Romney is the GOP nominee), New Hampshire. In some ways, this could be a very conventional US presidential election: the Republicans can’t win without Ohio and probably though not quite certainly win if they get it. President Obama has spent a lot of time in Ohio; he is not, at this moment, much loved there.
Republicans then go into 2012 likely to hold the House and take the Senate, and with a solid chance of taking the White House as well. For Democrats, this is shaping up as an election in which they try to limit losses: a far cry from the historic realignment they were dreaming of three short years ago.
Via Meadia is not in the soothsaying business; this is not intended as an election forecast. But after months of horse race coverage in Iowa, it makes sense to step back from the day to day headlines and spend a little time thinking about how the big picture is starting to shape up. The playing field is tilting away from the Democrats this year; after running the table in 2008, Democrats face losing it all this time around.