The unthinkable ended up happening in the GOP race. While the press is covering Barack Obama’s victory as a huge stunning surprise, the fact is that no candidate had a lead in the state since Edwards lost his edge some time in the spring and Obama’s organization in Iowa was by many accounts even better than Edwards and Clinton’s. Huckabee’s 9% triumph, on the other hand, defies all rules of politics, and especially all rules of caucusing: Romney had been leading from the spring to November, and usually by very healthy leads; he massively outspent Huckabee; he buried him with attack ads; and he had a well-constructed organization that Huckabee could probably not even conceive of. And I confess that I was also one of those who thought that, in the end, Huckabee just faced too many obstacles to pull this one off. Yet, when voters went to caucus, Huckabee not only defeated Romney but he did so by a very comfortable margin: 34% to 25%.
The entrance polls reveal the main reason for Huckabee’s triumph. We knew, of course, that his base were evangelicals, but the surge of evangelical turnout was not fully expected: 60% of GOP caucus-goers were born-again or evangelical Christians and, among those, Huckabee got 46% versus 19% for Mitt Romney. Among the 40% who are not, Romney got 33% and Huckabee got 14% — behind even McCain and Thompson who got 18% and 17% respectively. Meanwhile, among the third of voters who said that the “religious beliefs of a candidate matter a great deal” Huckabee got 56% and Romney got 11% — tied with McCain and Thompson. Among the third who said it mattered somewhat, Romney and Huckabee were tied. It is impossible to know, of course, whether the beliefs that mattered so much were Hucakbee’s being a preacher or Romney’s Mormonism… My guess is that both had a big impact on the race.
And this highlights the huge challenge to Huckabee going forward, at least in New Hampshire: He did not reach out beyond evangelicals and his base is — for now — very much based on religious affiliation. New Hampshire is not Iowa, and there are much less evangelicals who will go to the polls on Tuesday, which underscores why Huckabee will only go so far in New Hampshire unless he manages to broaden his appeal in the next 4 days. Huckabee’s next natural state, of course, is South Carolina. But keep an eye on Michigan on the 15th: Huckabee’s populism is explicitely designed for states like that, and there could be a major showdown in Michigan between Huckabee and whoever wins New Hampshire (Romney/McCain).
Romney, now, is quasi-fatally wounded. His strategy has been entirely predicated on winning Iowa and New Hampshire. And until the middle of November, it looked like he would get both without even breaking a sweat as candidates were conceding to him one by one. Then Huckabee appeared on the radar screen, followed by McCain. Now, Romney did not lose by a small margin. He got trashed, and he is now going on to New Hampshire where his once-impressive lead has melted. Poll after poll are showing a completely tied race and McCain is even leading in some for the first time. The one good news for Romney yesterday: McCain did not get third place. With 95% of precincts reporting, Thompson is barely ahead of McCain, though they both get 13%. It’s close, true, but it prevents McCain from getting that clear a bounce out of Iowa — and the muddle he is in prevented him from being part of the storyline this morning.
Expect an epic fight in New Hampshire in the next 5 days. Romney and McCain had already been exchanging very pointed attacks through direct comments to the press and through increasingly negative ads (especially on McCain’s part). Romney’s camp has already started raising the age question, and that is only going to intensify in the coming days. Both candidates know that they are probably out with a loss, and this will be vicious. Romney is not out of the race by any means, but he is likely to lose whatever small edge he had left after his Iowa collapse.
Two very important things to keep in mind: (1) Obama’s victory is very bad news for McCain, especially his huge win among independents. It means that Obama is the story going in Tuesday and that independents are likely to massively come out in his favor again. McCain needs those very same independents, and there is a lot of evidence that McCain and Obama are competing against the same people. If Clinton had won yesterday and the Democratic race had seemed less competitive, many of these independents would have been likely to go in the GOP primary instead. (2) Giuliani’s continuing melting means that McCain could pick up whatever support Rudy has left in NH. The debate this week-end was supposed to only feature the top four finishers in Iowa, and that could mean that Rudy is excluded — great news for McCain.
As for the other candidates: Fred Thompson did get third, but he is barely ahead of a candidate who did not air ads and who barely campaigned. He will get nowhere in New Hampshire and the press will keep asking him when he is dropping out. As for Rudy Giuliani, he got 3.5%. That’s right. Even for a candidate who did not campaign, that’s just embarassing — after all, McCain got 13% while campaigning just a bit more. Giuliani did have some mailers going out, and while his strategy is based on bypassing the early states there is some threshold of viability he has to meet to not be ridiculed.
That said, Giuliani has to also be very happy with Romney’s loss yesterday. The race will now stay muddied for a while, as there will be two winners of the two early states and a drawn out fight in Michigan and in South Carolina. In other words, Giuliani now has a fighting chance to implement his Florida/Feb. 5th strategy. And while I’m still skeptical that it has any chance of succeeding, the first requirement has been met.
And congratulations to Ron Paul, who got 10% of the vote and a big share of the independents voters who turned out last night. My one prediction yesterday had been that Paul would beat Giuliani and that he would even contest fourth place, and he did as he is close to McCain while crushing Giuliani. Notice also that Paul’s support was understated in polls — and that’s likely to be the same in New Hampshire.