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3Qs: All eyes on Iowa caucuses

On Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses by a grand total of eight votes over Rick Santorum, whose surging candidacy overshadowed the former Massachusetts governor’s slim victory. We asked political science professor William Crotty, who specializes in American political parties and elections, to analyze the implications of the opening round of the GOP race for the White House.

From a historical perspective, how important are the results of the Iowa caucuses in determining the Republican nomination for president?

The Iowa caucuses are a curious animal; there is no good argument that I can think of to give Iowans the leadoff spot in the election year. The state is about as much of a representative of the country as a whole as Idaho: Social conservatives and Christian fundamentalists dominate the make-up of Republican caucus-voters, which is a point that is not often made clear.

Historically speaking, the Iowa results have a mediocre record in choosing eventual Republican nominees and a dismal record in choosing eventual presidential winners. So the question is, “Why Iowa?” The answer is that campaigning in Iowa gives credibility to a candidate, strengthens fundraising and provides enormously increased media attention.

How does Romney’s slim margin of victory reflect his chances of winning the Republican nomination? Has Rick Santorum’s surging candidacy made him a viable alternative to Romney and a legitimate candidate to beat Barack Obama?

Rick Santorum is arguably the most socially conservative of the candidates, given his views on abortion, gay marriage and in-home schooling among other issues, but he nonetheless achieved a remarkable victory. He is not, however, likely to be able to sustain his success, given his limited organizational capabilities, his meager fundraising, and the fact that he has not organized extensively in other states. Further, he has gotten a pass in running a grassroots level retail campaign with little to no TV ads and finishing in the polls at or near the bottom of the pack, until the run-up to his showing Tuesday. He has not received the intense vetting of other candidates and he has not been the object of attacks by other candidates to date.

I see the Santorum challenge as the latest [manifestation of] anybody-but-Romney sentiment among Republicans. His close second-place finish is the best possible outcome that Romney could have hoped for, but I do not see this emphasized in the media. Romney’s showing, also unexpected until about a week ago, is an enormous accomplishment. Given the Iowa outcome and the fact that he is well ahead in New Hampshire, I believe Romney is assured of the nomination. Rick Santorum is not a serious alternative and the other candidates have had their day in the sun and then essentially failed. I believe Romney thinks the same. His speech after the Iowa vote to supporters was totally aimed at President Obama and the general election and raised the issues that he will use in the fall campaign.

The real challenge to Romney would have come from Newt Gingrich, if he could have overcome his past problems and gotten himself in a position to compete effectively. That’s why the Super Pac supporting Romney focused on Newt in a fierce negative TV campaign.

Ron Paul received more than 21 percent of the caucus votes, owing largely to young supporters who showed up in droves to back the 76-year-old candidate. Will Paul be able to depend on young voters to keep him competitive in states such as New Hampshire?

Ron Paul is a different type of candidate. As he himself has said, he does not see himself having breakfast in the White House. His vote and patterns of support will be relatively consistent in the more conservative states and will continue to appeal to libertarian ideologues and the young and first-time voters. His support in Iowa was concentrated among the young, the less financially well off, more independent-minded voters and first-timers in the caucuses. It’s a much different pattern of voter support compared to that of Romney, who did well among the older and more moderate Republicans opposed to the Tea Party, the higher-income groups, the college-educated and those who believe the economy and electability are the most important considerations.

Paul is no threat for the nomination to any frontrunner. His intention appears to be to influence Republican Party thinking and its eventual platform. Even then, there are questions, given his views on issues, including his support for the Palestinians, and his opposition to the wars presently under way.

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