Gov. Romney’s incredibly narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses is being widely belittled on the ground that he got roughly the same percentage and same number of votes as in 2008. Why couldn’t he make the sale with 4 extra years to do it? Now one could make an argument that this is the wrong measuring stick. It’s a different field, and Romney is following a different strategy. Back then he was trying to unite the Right to beat candidates positioned to his left, and he banked on Iowa and New Hampshire to do it. This time he is the relatively moderate candidate (even though, oddly, his positions are the same as the ones he took back then), and Iowa is not nearly as important to him as it was then. He has spent far less time and money there, deployed fewer staffers, and did not make the decision to compete actively in Iowa until several weeks ago. One might even compare Romney’s showing to that of the candidates who were positioned as moderates in 2008 (McCain and Giuliani, who had almost no presence in the state because the campaigns they were running practically precluded one) and see his performance as extremely strong.
As I said, one could make that argument. But that’s not going to be the prevailing interpretation of what happened a few hours ago, and that is because the Romney campaign completely lost control of expectations, in important part through its own — and especially the candidate’s own — mistakes. For weeks, the Romney campaign had tried not even to whisper that it could win Iowa. Then in the last days of the campaign Romney decided to indulge in bizarre bravado. His political instincts do not seem to be finely tuned. This tie is going to go to Santorum: When you have to explain a victory, you haven’t won one. (See Buchanan-Bush in the ’92 New Hampshire primary.) It is only his lack of money and organization that has prevented Santorum’s political victory from being a fiasco for Romney.
As for Santorum, there is some chatter that he should skip socially liberal New Hampshire and go straight to socially conservative South Carolina. That would be a mistake. There are plenty of social conservatives in New Hampshire (and Catholics, and Italian Americans): Buchanan won a small plurality of the state in 1996, and Ovide Lamontagne nearly won the Senate primary in 2010 by running to the right of Kelly Ayotte, herself a pro-life opponent of same-sex marriage. I don’t think Santorum is likely to win New Hampshire — right now Romney looks pretty strong — but he could do more to consolidate his position as the leading challenger to Romney.