This race is Romney's to lose

Mitt Romney campaigning with 2008 Republican nominee John McCain in Manchester, N.H., this week. Polls suggest Romney will win the primary.
Mitt Romney campaigning with 2008 Republican nominee John McCain in Manchester, N.H., this week. Polls suggest Romney will win the primary. (STEPHAN SAVOIA/ Associated Press)
Posted: January 06, 2012

Rick Santorum's close second-place finish in the Iowa Republican caucuses this week mainly serves to confirm that the contest is overrated. While the former Pennsylvania senator's near-victory was impressive, it's unlikely to mean much in terms of the eventual Republican nomination. The only second-place Iowa finisher who went on to win the nomination was Ronald Reagan, in 1980, and I don't think anyone is confusing Santorum with the Gipper.

Iowa often fails to pick the overall winner; just ask Mike Huckabee. That's because Iowa caucus-goers don't accurately represent the national electorate.

Many of the issues relevant to Iowans, such as ethanol and farm subsidies, do not resonate with the average American.

Also, Iowans are more socially conservative than the rest of America. More of the state's people oppose same-sex marriage and abortion than in the rest of the United States.

Much of Santorum's support came from voters who consider abortion the most important issue facing the nation. This group will make up only a small percentage of the electorate in the coming Republican primaries and in the general election.

If Santorum can moderate his message in a way that appeals to New Hampshire primary voters, he might be able to build on his Iowa showing. But he faces long odds. He has never polled in the double digits in the Granite State, which happens to be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's backyard, as well as fertile soil for Ron Paul's libertarian message.

Stances that turn off independents and more moderate Republicans often succeed in Iowa, which explains why Santorum, Huckabee, and Pat Robertson did so well in the Hawkeye State. But while Iowa often rewards candidates who run to the far right, the nomination usually goes to those who put themselves closer to the center. And one cannot do both without creating the appearance of changing positions on important issues.

Republicans need independents to win the general election, and Santorum embodies the social conservatism and hawkish foreign policy that independents ran away from in 2008. Even in Iowa, many recognized this, which is why Romney did fairly well in the state. Indeed, Romney's win is startling considering the state's preference for conservative candidates and how little time he spent there. That he was able to achieve a narrow victory in the caucuses despite his East Coast heritage, Mormonism, and support for some liberal policies shows that many caucus-goers were looking for the candidate with the best chance to beat President Obama, not the one they identified with most.

Romney is not the Republican candidate with the most consistent record of supporting conservative values. But he does have the best chance of giving Republican voters what they want: a Republican White House. He has support from the Republican establishment, enough money to run a successful campaign against Obama, a record that can attract independents, and a successful background in the private sector.

All of which goes to show that Iowa caucus-goers knew what much of the Republican Party knows: that the staunch conservatism of the tea party and House Republicans cannot win the White House.

Romney still looks like the only candidate capable of winning New Hampshire, though Paul could challenge him. If he does do as well as polls suggest on Tuesday, he will have won the first two contests of the nominating season. Add to that his strong organization and fund-raising, and it appears the only remaining question is who Romney's running mate will be. Santorum might be a good choice.

Kyle Scott teaches political science at Duke University.

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