It’s all about “narratives.”
What happened last night in Iowa matters far less than the stories that are being told about it. Santorum pulled off a stunning upset? Mitt failed to meet/met/exceeded expectations? Ron Paul is a contender/a joke/a spoiler? Which of these narratives will harden into “the” narrative that will define the race going forward?
Here are a few tales being told that deserve our attention:
Narrative 1: The Romney Ceiling
Kellyanne Conway was on TV last night saying, breathlessly, that “this proves that the Romney Ceiling is real.” One commenter over at Lucianne.com refers to Mitt as “Romney25,” explaining that the former governor is incapable of getting more than 25% of the vote in any situation.
This is a crock.
Romney is about 25 points ahead of his nearest rival in New Hampshire, a state which has no appetite to rubber stamp the preferences of Iowan, Mormon-hating evangelicals. Nothing that happened last night will erode Mitt’s considerable lead, and the “Romney Ceiling” will come shattering down, which will have Kellyanne and others insisting that New Hampshire doesn’t really count.
Narrative 2: Santorum Is Now a Real Contender
No, he isn’t. He is simply the latest repository of votes for people who can’t stand Mitt, especially those who hate Mormons. Yes, he was lucky enough to have his surge coincide with actual voting, and he will likely collapse under the same scrutiny that sank previous flashes in the pan. He has no money and no organization, and he’s going to lose big in New Hampshire.
Recall that Mike Huckabee won Iowa, too. After McCain stomped everyone in New Hampshire, Huckabee was done, despite being far more prepared, financially and organizationally, to conduct a nationwide campaign than Santorum is.
Narrative 3: Last Night = Bad Night for Mitt
That’s only true if this narrative takes hold. Remember, Mitt’s initial plan was to skip Iowa, where the anti-Mormon dynamics that created the Huckabeast are still in full force. Yet without any campaigning, he was still at the top of most polls, and it was only about two months ago that he decided to seriously compete. He won this thing – yes, by only eight votes, but that’s better than losing by eight votes – with about a tenth of the time, people, and money he sank into it four years ago.
The issue here is expectations. Mitt’s people unsuccessfully tried to downplay his chances, but expectations were raised despite the Romney campaign’s best efforts. Given the heavy evangelical vote, it is impossible to imagine Mitt doing any better in Iowa than he did. The fact that he did it with so little effort is almost miraculous. That’s my narrative, and I’m sticking to it.
Narrative 4: Romney Can’t Lose
Of course he can. He’s going to lose South Carolina, for instance – no way a Mormon can survive there. South Carolina, unlike Iowa, is usually representative of who gets the nomination. If Santorum can survive a devastating loss in New Hampshire and come back to win South Carolina, then it’s easy to imagine a long, hard slog to the nomination. I don’t think Mitt will lose, as he is easily the best equipped to survive a long, hard slog, but a lot can happen between now and then. Plus Gingrich is out for blood, although I think he’s now something of a spent force.
Narrative 5: Mitt Romney Stole The Victory
This was the first thing out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth this morning, and it’s utter poppycock. According to Rush, Mitt and the “establishment” held the totals in two counties to make sure that Mitt would win by eight instead of losing by five. First off, how did Mitt do that? Second, why would he do it? Did he know that he would be able to pull of a tiny victory with literally a handful of votes? Does he have two counties on the payroll? If he’s going to steal the thing via fraud, why couldn’t he pull off a bigger margin than eight measly ballots?
Incidentally, all the talk of the Republican “establishment” always strikes me as ridiculous. Who’s pulling the strings in this “establishment,” and why are Rush and Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum not in it? Is the establishment simply Karl Rove with a bunch of winged monkeys?
So here’s my narrative.
Narrative El Stallion: Mitt Romney Wins the Nomination and Loses the Election
Mitt will win the nomination – maybe quickly, more likely after a long slog – because the Republicans don’t have anybody else. Bachmann’s gone, but Rick Perry is apparently staying in the race, which is nice, because Perry and Gingrich may be able to dilute Santorum’s likely South Carolina win and weaken him for the slog.
And then Mitt loses to Obama, mainly due to the fact that a Mormon can’t win a general election. I state that not to be a victim, but rather as a recognition of reality. The Mormon thing matters, and nobody wants to talk about how much. But both Iowa and South Carolina provide plentiful evidence that there are oodles of evangelical voters who would rather suffer through four more years of Obama than legitimize the LDS Church by putting someone from such an alien cult into the White House.
Golly. And you all thought this narrative would have a happy ending.
UPDATE: Intrade has Mitt with a 75% chance at winning the nomination vs. a 4% chance for Santorum. So much for the Santorum-the-Contender narrative.
UPDATE II: Newt was on the radio a minute ago complaining about the “establishment” and calling himself an “outsider.” Newt Gingrich is many things – a genius, an innovator, and, over the past few days, an insufferable whiner. An outsider he is not.
His current whining is particularly surprising. Oooooh, did the big bad Womney give you a boo-boo, Newtie? What on earth did you think Barack Obama would do to you if you became the nominee?