Lessons From Iowa: Attack Politics Work, Straw Polls Don't

Though the Iowa caucuses don't guarantee a nominee, they teach many other valuable lessons

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The biggest surprise coming out of Tuesday's crucial Iowa caucuses is how close former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came to beating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. An asterisk for much of the race, Santorum mobilized a coalition of pro life, pro traditional marriage supporters to lift him from near the bottom of the field almost to the top of the heap.

Santorum, a social conservative's conservative, managed his victory by using the "old school" campaign playbook. He virtually lived in the Hawkeye State over the last few months, visiting every county at least once and allowing the voters the opportunity to get to know him personally, something that proved useful in convincing voters in both parties concerned with issues like life and marriage to rally to him. It has to be interpreted as a powerful message to Romney from the most reliable part of the GOP.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

The Iowa results tell us several other important things, perhaps the most important of which is that negative campaigning remains an effective tactic no matter how much the media and public opinion surveys tell us voters don't like it.

It may be that they don't like it only when it is used by Republicans against Democrats in the general election—and then only because it works. In Iowa former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who at one point led the field, saw his campaign wither under a barrage of negative ads from Romney and third place finisher Rep. Ron Paul. Some estimates put the total amount of money spent on those ads at $15 million, an incredible sum for such a small state so early in the process. Still Gingrich managed expectations well enough that he likely survives at least through South Carolina.

We can also now conclude that straw polls are a poor if not ridiculous indicator of future performance. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll by a commanding margin only to finish so far down on Tuesday that she quit the campaign Wednesday.

[Vote: Is the GOP 2012 Race Already Too Negative?]

Finally we can conclude that—at least in a state like Iowa—organization matters. Romney and Ron Paul were perhaps the best organized of the candidates competing for the votes of caucus goers and it showed in the results. Having county chairmen and precinct captains and in-state phone banks and an on-the-ground get out the vote effort is still important no matter how much technology has changed the art of campaigning. What Iowa says about the rest of the race, however, is another matter.

Santorum is going to be hindered by his lack of organization in New Hampshire, a state most people expect Romney to win handsomely. The upcoming debates will be interesting, particularly in regards to who goes after whom. Will Santorum try to topple Romney? Will Ron Paul? Will Gingrich be able to remain positive and win back some of his support? Will Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman stay in the race? Most importantly, what will Romney do now that he has lost the luxury of being able to coast to the nomination? Will he change his campaign tactics? Will he go negative against Santorum or regard his as a "one-trick pony" whose near-victory in Iowa is better ignored than addressed?

[Read the U.S. News debate: Will Mitt Romney be the GOP Nominee?]

It is also fair to ask what happens if Romney still wins New Hampshire but by a much closer margin than the polls currently forecast or if he loses? How will that change the race? And who could beat him? Gingrich still has the backing of the influential New Hampshire Union-Leader. Voters in the Granite State are different than those in Iowa, tending to be more concerned with limited government issues like taxes and spending, which constitute Ron Paul's major lines of argument than with the social issues Santorum rode to a near upset on Tuesday.

The results in Iowa show that the anti-Romney vote is substantial, with roughly 75 percent of those participating in the caucuses indicating a preference for a candidate other than Romney—even as many Republicans concede they expect him to be the eventual nominee. The problem, some GOP consultants say, is that many conservatives simply do not trust the former Bay State governor, who was once aggressively pro-abortion rights and who has explained that during the Reagan-Bush years he was an independent. These are not the kind of credentials the conservative rank-and-file find reassuring, particularly given Romney's rather aloof campaign style.

[Read: Critics Mock Romney's Iowa 'Win.']

On the other hand the results in Iowa already have other people speculating about the possibility of a Romney-Santorum ticket, which admittedly has much to commend it. Romney has a certain appeal to independents and has shown he knows how to win in one of the bluest of the so-called "blue states." Having Santorum as his running mate would arguably put the critical state of Pennsylvania in play, would address at least some of the concerns of the social conservatives who feel they cannot get behind Romney, at least at the moment, and would be attractive to Catholics, who have been the key voter bloc in most every presidential election over the last 60 years.

History tells us that the results in Iowa are not always a good predictor of the eventual outcome in either party. It's still too early to tell how things will turn out but what happened in the caucuses has certainly shaken up the race for the 2012 GOP nomination.

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