Forty-eight hours into the voting portion of the 2012 Presidential election, we have a Democratic Presidential nominee, incumbent President Barack Obama, and, five serious candidates in the Republican Presidential primary (in their order of their performances in the Iowa caucuses): (1) former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, (2) former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, (3) Texas Congressman Ron Paul, (4) former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who served in Congress from Georgia, and (5) Texas Governor Rick Perry. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman running as a Republican moderate plans to campaign in New Hampshire, but ignored Iowa and has been irrelevant in the polls all along. Wisconsin Congresswoman Michele Bachman dropped out of the race this morning after finishing 6th in Iowa (where she was born) with just 5% of the partisan vote.
Romney and Santorum were within eight votes of each other with about 25% of the caucus vote each in a process which independents and even Democrats willing to change their registration on the day could join. Ron Paul brought far more people from outside the Republican party into the process than any of the other candidates and captured about 21% of the vote. Gingrich garnered 13% of the vote and Perry won just 10% of the vote.
Polls give Romney a safe lead in New Hampshire which holds its first in the nation primary on Tuesday, January 10th, where he owns a vacation home and in the same media market where he served as Governor. New Hampshire gives independents as well as Republicans a say and has a particularly low barrier to ballot access.
Perry hasn't dropped out of the race, but he has never campaigned hard in New Hampshire, effectively conceding the race, and has told supporters that he is setting his sights on the January 21st primary in South Carolina. The month will close out on January 31st with the Florida primary, a state rich in delegates that is a pivotal swing state and less "Southern" culturally than its fellow states of the American South.
It has long been clear that this race is between Romney and other candidates striving to be the "not Romney" candidate.
Some of this is a cultural aversion to Romney. He is a Yankee in a party that is dominated by the South and the Great Plains. Republicans rail against the cultural elitism, the political liberalism, the uptightness, the emotional guardedness, and what they see as the affected snobbery of New England culture. He is a Mormon, and while Mormons are an important and loyal Republican constituency with similar values on social issues in many respects to Evangelical Christians and strongly religious Roman Catholics who are predominant in the Republican base, many Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics are uncomfortable with Mormons for doctrinal and cultural reasons (the Mormon culture, by the way, historically, was almost exclusively an outgrowth of pre-Civil War, Yankee culture). He is probably the least charismatic of the candidates, and his reputation as an intellectual doesn't sit will with the strong elements of anti-intellectualism that are a central part of modern Republican populism.
The other candidates are closer cultural fits to the Republican base. Santorum is a child of Catholic immigrant families who grew up in Appalachia. Paul, Gingrich and Perry hail from the South.
Opposition to Romney is also rooted in his politics. Romney's record as Governor is as a political moderate, a sin compounded by his recent flip flops to more conservative positions that bring him in line with national Republican norms that many Republicans doubt are sincere. The health care plan that was adopted with his consent and cooperation while he was Governor is extremely similar to that of President Obama's health care reform plan that was a central issue in the national Republican campaign against President Obama in 2010. Massachusetts is frequently cited by Republicans as a prime example of policies that they oppose like high taxation, opposition to the death penalty, overregulation, significant government intervention in the market to reduce the number of uninsured individuals, and a relatively generous welfare state.
Still, finding a non-Romney standard bearer from the other four candidates still seriously in the running is not an easy task.
Rick Santorum lost his U.S. Senate race in 2006 in Pennsylvania by a larger margin than any previous Republican incumbent, but has the virtue of taking positions close to the Republican platform more or cross the board, although he is more retrograde than most Republicans in his view on the proper place of women in society. He wants limitations on welfare, wants women to more often choose to stay at home instead of work, is opposed to the legalization of both abortion and contraception, favors an aggressive anti-Islamic foreign policy and military stance, and backs creationist positions on the No Child Left Behind Act. He is in his early 50s, and far surpasses Romeny, Paul and Gingrich in the charisma department. Santorum is a Fox News regular which gives him name recognition and credibility among Republican primary candidates that money can't buy.
Ron Paul, has run for President many times, largely as a protest candidate, to give himself a platform from which to espouse his libertarian views. But, many of those libertarian views, such as an isolationist foreign policy mindset and support for legalizing drugs, are heterdox for Republicans and viewed as being too liberal, while some of his other libertarian views, like a very strong pro-gun rights position and support for a radical reduction in the scope and scale of the federal government, may win cheers from Tea Party supporters, but make him vulnerable in a general election conduct where those views would be considered to extreme in the conservative direction. A history of tolerating racists in his campaign staff, even to the point of writing newsletter entries in his name, doesn't help either. Paul is more than a little weird.
Newt Gingrich was peaking just a few weeks ago, but relentless campaign ads in Iowa calculated to undermine support for him placed by Romney supporters, he insane willingness to go on the record in favor of arresting federal judges based on court ruling with which he disagreed and in favor of disregarding U.S. Supreme Court orders, and his failure to get on the ballot in Virigina, unlike Romney and Paul who succeeded in doing so, despite the fact that Gingrich actually lives mostly in Virginia, have all caused his star to dim and his support in Iowa to fade. New Hampshire's Union Leader paper endorsed him in the New Hampshire primary, but at this point it isn't clear that this will do much to cushion his fall from grace over the last few weeks.
Newt Gingrich also has a long record to run against. He was an advocate of shutting down the federal government, a tactic the backfired horribly against Congressional Republicans at the time and is very similar to the obstructionism Congressional Republicans have shown in the last couple of year that they have controlled in the House over issues like opposition to increasing the national debt limit that impaired the nation's credit rating. His ethical scandals and adulterous affair despite his sanctimonious support for "family values" forced him to resign from his post as Speaker of the House. As a lobbyist, he pushed for all of the key components of President Obama's health care reforms. He is a consumate Washington insider and instinctive social engineer, despite his conservative views, with roots in Georgia politics. He is prone to foot in mouth disease, is incautious, and listens more to his own big ideas than to the concerns raised by rank and file voters. Gingrich is a pre-Tea Party Republican whose Contact with America policy vision isn't necessary a match to the litmus tests of today's Republican activists.
Rick Perry, who is still a sitting Governor, hasn't suffered the catastrophic political defeats that Santorum and Gingrich have experienced. While he is in the mainstream of conservative ideology, he doesn't have the kind of intense conservative ideological guiding vision of Santorum, Paul and Gingrich. He is an affiable guy who'd probably win the "guy I want to have a beer with" vote over the other GOP Presidential candidates. But, a long season of debates made it painfully clear that he really isn't all that bright and may not be up to the task of the Presidency intellectually. The Governor of Texas is the weakest Governor in the nation, so he's had less of an opportunity to screw up, he's presided over hundreds of executions (that he had only very limited power to slow down), and his state's economy, for whatever the reason, is thriving. But, a 5th place finish in Iowa with just 10% of the vote, a likely back in the pack finish in New Hampshire, and sagging poll support relative to his peak this past fall, all position him poorly to make a good showing in South Carolina and Florida, and if he fails to shine there, his race is over.
Romney is on track to be the default winner of the Republican primary process if nothing changes. He was won (narrowly) in Iowa and is on track to win in New Hampshire. His opposition is divided. He has much more cash stockpiled than his opponents to campaign against them with and used it to good effect to bring Gingrich down a notch in Iowa. He has far more endorsements from Republican elected officials and party officers who are superdelegates and are instrumental in the process generally, than any of the remaining candidates. Measured in head to head polls against President Obama, he is the most electable of the GOP candidates.
But, it still isn't beyond the realm of possibility that the ascendant Tea Party faction of the Republican party won't unite around one of the four "not Romney" candidates in the Southern primaries and the primaries that follow, extending the fight for the nomination and possibily awarding it to someone other than Romney (or at least pushing a Tea Party favorite into the Vice Presidency).
Santorum seems like the most plausible "not Romney" candidate at this point. His issues aren't exactly those of the Tea Party, but he has always been a hard core conservative, is less of a loose canon than Paul or Gingrich, and is much smarter than Perry without having to come across as too intellectual as Romney does. Santorum is a politician in the mold of George W. Bush, who for better or for worse, was the Republican role model for a decade, but is smarter and wasn't a drunk, drug using screw up in his younger years the way that George W. Bush was in his day.
There is also another piece of the puzzle. Ron Paul is ready, able and willing to be annointed as the Libertarian party candidate (a post currently being sought by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson), on the ballot in all fifty states, if he fails to secure the nomination. There are fair arguments over whether a Ron Paul candidacy would hurt the Republican nominee or President Obama more in a 2012 general election race, although on balance, it would seem that he would hurt the Republican somewhat more given the legitimacy that his run to be the GOP nominee has given him this time around. But, at the very least, he would be a more viable third party candidate than Ralph Nader who ran on a Green Party ticket in the 2000 election, and realistically, Ron Paul might be the most viable third party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992 (18.9% of the vote) and 1996 (8% of the vote).
Ron Paul is not going to beat President Obama in the general election, either as a Republican nominee for President, or as a third party candidates. He could conceivably draw more votes from would be Obama voters than from Republican voters and tilt the balance in favor of the Republicans. He could cause another Republican nominee to name his as his running mate to defuse or even mobilize his enthusiastic supporters. But, he won't win in his own right.
A Newt Gingrich nominee would also crash and burn in the general election. The Republican may as well have nominated a post-resignation Nixon with a nominee like Gingrich.
Romney, Santorum and Perry, while each are flawed candidates in their own ways, are not nearly as certain to lose in a general election contest with President Obama.
Thus, there are really only four people with any plausible chance of being the President in 2013 absent a major calamity: President Obama, Governor Romney, Senator Santorum, or Governor Perry, in that order. I would put President Obama's current chances of re-election at 60%, Romney's chances of being our next President at 25%, Santorum's chances of being our next President at 9%, Perry's chances of being our next President at 4%, and other other possible candidates (of both parties) collective chances of being our next President at 2%.
Reasonable people could disagree with me over the exact percentages (indeed, I could disagree with me over that and it is an admittedly inexact matter), but I think that a great many well informed reasonable people who are looking at what is likely rather than a what they would prefer would agree with me on the ranking of the likelihoods. I have seen no one predict with serious reasoning that President Obama has less than a 45% chance of re-election and most estimates hover close to 50-50; but the Republican field must necessarily share the balance of the percentages of possibility. I've seen no serious dispute to the claim that Romney is the current front runner in the GOP race. The Iowa Caucus results, GOP primary voter polling trends, and Perry's near concession of New Hamphire all favor Santorum over Perry. Paul may have some non-negligable chance of winning his party's nomination, but I just can't see him winning the general election if he does - his views may be rising in credibility, a bit like the Progressive candidates of their day, but the late 19th century, early 20th century Progressives didn't get elected very often either, their ideas had far more impact as a result of being absorbed by major parties than they did from their direct implementation by candidates running solely on their ticket.
Perhaps I have gone out on a limb too far in my assessment of Gingrich, but Iowa voters put him in fourth place, far behind Romney, Santorum and Paul; his polling in GOP primary polls has deteriorated; his staffers have already left his sinking ship once; he is low on money and endorsements; and his prospects in New Hampshire are bleak. Of the four "not Romney" candidates, he seems least likely to be able to rebound in the South, because he has strayed so far from his Georgia origins in the path to becoming a consumate Washington insider. There is just too much mud to throw at him from all directions.