Monday, November 12, 2012

Can You Handle the Truth?

"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
 -Mitt Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, during the Republican National Convention

As things turned out last Tuesday, that was the fatal flaw in Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency: a refusal to accept, or even acknowledge, basic truths.  It shouldn't be a huge surprise that a party whose leaders resist the science of climate change and evolution isn't big on math, either.  The Romney campaign played fast and loose with the facts all summer and fall, but there's no truth-in-advertising law for politicians.  Society can debate whose scientific theories are more valid, and candidates can squabble over whose ads are more mendacious.  But once the ballots are cast and counted, one side's guess about the makeup of the electorate is going to be proven right and the other wrong.  In 2012, the assumptions made by most of the public pollsters, and those working for the Obama campaign - the ones that drew so much scorn and ridicule from the GOP and Romney's own polling team - turned out to be dead on, and Romney's, dead wrong.

I wrote on Election Eve that this race reminded me very much of 2004, when President Bush squeaked out a narrow re-election win over John Kerry.  Bush beat Kerry in the popular vote that year, 50.7% to 48.3%.  As I write this, with some ballots still to be counted, President Obama has 50.5% of the popular vote, to Romney's 47.9%.  That's awfully close to what happened in 2004 (it's also the closest I've ever been to nailing my final prediction, which was Obama 50.2 to Romney 47.9).

Throughout the campaign, Romney operatives, and some pollsters, insisted there was no way the broad coalition of young voters, African Americans, Latinos and inspired independents that propelled Barack Obama to history in 2008 was going to turn out for him this time.  Too much disappointment and disenchantment on the left, they said; the bloom is off the rose.  Romney will benefit from an enthusiasm gap; the electorate will be more like the one Bush got in '04.  They shredded polls that projected a Democratic turnout advantage of five, six, seven points (Democrats outnumbered Republicans by seven points in the '08 election).  What they failed to grasp - despite many, many polls suggesting this - was that Republican voters were even less enthusiastic about their nominee than Democrats were about President Obama.  Consistently, Romney supporters told the pollsters they were voting against the president more than they were voting for the GOP nominee.  Obama voters, meanwhile, were overwhelmingly casting ballots for his re-election, not against Romney.  The steady parade of "Anyone But Romney" Republican frontrunners during the primaries should have been enough of a warning sign for Romney and his strategists.  But, blinders on, the Romney team ignored all of that data, or insisted it was wrong, preferring instead to shoot out constant emails about huge, excited crowds at rallies and the proliferation of Romney-Ryan yard signs.  As I noted last week, crowd count is not a reliable predictor of success on Election Day.  A majority of voters simply didn't trust Romney, and they didn't feel he connected with them on a real level.  The lack of credibility, authenticity and embrace of reality permeated his campaign and doomed it from the start.

I took much of the GOP's ostensible optimism and confidence in the campaign's closing days as so much bluster.  Surely, they had to see what the rest of us did: that all signs pointed to the president's re-election.  There was simply no denying the data, and the sense of momentum for Mr. Obama that accelerated after Hurricane Sandy.  But no, their post-election comments reveal that the Romney team really didn't see defeat coming at all.  On Election Day, the youth turnout didn't go down - it went up, one percentage point from 2008.  The African American vote didn't decline - it increased, especially in Ohio, where it went from 11% of the electorate in '08 to 15% this year.  The Republican effort to make voting more difficult backfired, motivating minority voters in particular to stand in line for hours to cast their ballots for the president.  And an enormous Latino tide, with 71% of those voters preferring Barack Obama, simply swept Mitt Romney's erroneous assumptions away, and with them, his shot at the presidency.  In fact, of the major ethnic groups, only the white vote declined.  Democrats made up 38% of the electorate this time around, and Republicans 32%, with independents and others constituting the rest: in other words, exactly the six-point advantage many of those GOP-derided polls assumed.

I took some heat on Twitter for suggesting that the Gallup and Rasmussen polls were using flawed methodology. "It's pretty obvious you just like the polls that show Obama is winning," one critic tweeted.  No, I like the ones whose methods make sense, and to me that seemed to be IBD/TIPP and Reuters/Ipsos.  I was slightly suspect of Public Policy Polling, a firm that works for Democratic campaigns, because their surveys seemed to overstate Obama's support and looked like slight outliers.  As we review the polls now, it was PPP, IBD/TIPP and Reuters/Ipsos who were most accurate.  Rasmussen skewed way to the Republican side, as it often does, and Gallup simply blew it, by assuming a much whiter electorate and excluding too many actual voters with its "likely voter" screen.  Gallup has been around since 1947 and is America's best-known pollster by far, but I will no longer consider them reliable until I see them get a major election right again (they were among the least accurate in 2008, too).

I also am not a fan of the Real Clear Politics average, and I hope the outcome of this election illustrates why.  RCP's final average gave President Obama a 0.7% lead.  He won by 2.6%, subject to slight revision.  That's a fairly significant miss.  You can't simply add the 53% reported by a live poll of 2000 people with landlines and cellphones to the 49% from a poll of 300 people by robocall and call it an "average" of 51%, which is what RCP does (in this example, the true average of those two polls would be 52.5%, and their differing methodologies would render even that result suspect).  I hope lazy media outlets stop reporting that "average" as some sort of useful and informative number.

I am curious to see if the Republican Party reverts to denial within a few months of absorbing this defeat.  The demographic trends can't be ignored: take a look at California if you want to see the future of the national GOP if it makes the mistake of doing so.  The Republican Party teeters on the brink of irrelevancy in the Golden State, where Democrats hold every statewide office and two-thirds of the legislature.  Mitt Romney won only 38% of the presidential vote.  Latinos and young voters here are overwhelmingly Democratic.  The national GOP leaders can't be that blind.  But will they react cynically - showcasing Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Susana Martinez while still hewing to the social conservative line - or will they moderate their views, compromise on immigration reform and taxes and give up the ghost on things like repealing Roe v. Wade and banning same sex marriage? It's hard to imagine John Boehner and company moving very far to the middle, for very long.

One thing is certain: the 2016 primaries will be fascinating.  2008 was the first wide-open race, with no incumbent president or vice president running for either party's nomination, since 1928.  Now we'll have a second one, just eight years later, assuming Joe Biden doesn't take a third shot at running for president (he will be 73, and delusional if he thinks he can win).  On the Democratic side, it should be Hillary Clinton versus the field (Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley, maybe Elizabeth Warren?), with a huge and deep potential field for the Republicans, led by Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum and maybe Nikki Haley, Bob McDonnell, Rand Paul and a few others, too.  That's an extremely conservative bunch, with Christie the most able to position himself as a centrist.  Most of those Republican candidates are likely to run as right wing purists and point to Romney's defeat as a reason why.  That could easily mean an even more lopsided Democratic victory four years from now.

A few interesting nuggets from this election:

  • Mitt Romney lost Massachusetts by 23 points, the worst home state defeat ever for a governor (or former governor) running for president.  The old record was 20 points, set by Ohio Governor James Cox in 1920, but he lost to a fellow Ohioan, Senator Warren Harding, so neither had the home field advantage.  The worst previous home state loss to someone from a different state was only eight points, by Kansas Governor Alf Landon to FDR (of New York) in 1936, so Romney really shattered this one.
  • Obama won all four "new" states (NY, NJ, NH and NM) while Romney won all the North, South and West ones (NC, SC, ND, SD and WV).
  • Obama swept all the swing states and won all the battleground states except North Carolina.
  • Mitt Romney not only lost his home state (MA), he also lost his birth state (Michigan) and the other two states in which he owns homes, New Hampshire and California.  He did win Utah, by a larger margin than any other state (48 points) but he no longer owns a residence there.
  • The states that were thought to be among the closest really weren't.  Obama won both Iowa and Wisconsin by almost six points, Colorado and Pennsylvania by more than five, Nevada by almost seven, Michigan by almost ten. Only Ohio (Obama by 2), Virginia (Obama by 3), Florida (Obama by 1) and North Carolina (Romney by 2) were close.
  • This is only the second time in history that three consecutive presidents have been elected to two terms.  The first time was Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, from 1800-1820.  This time it's Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from 1992-present.  Perhaps that says something about the power of incumbency in the era of television advertising and unlimited campaign spending.
  • Barack Obama is only the third president in history to be re-elected with fewer electoral votes than he won the first time around (Woodrow Wilson in 1916; FDR in both 1940 and 1944).
  • Obama is only the third Democrat to win more than 50% of the popular vote twice (Andrew Jackson and FDR are the others. The other three two-term Democratic presidents, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, never hit 50% in any of their victories).
  • New Hampshire is the first state ever to elect women to every major office (Governor, both U.S. Senators and both of its Congressional seats).
  • Hawaii is sending Congress its first Hindu member ever (Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic woman originally from American Samoa) and will also give the Senate its first Asian-American woman and first Buddhist ever, in the person of Mazie Hirono.
  • There will be 20 women in the U.S. Senate, a record, including the first lesbian (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin).
  • There will be seven gay members of Congress, enough to have an actual caucus.
  • See, this is how I spend my time, looking up stuff like this so you don't have to.
One final statistic: for the 9th time in 11 tries, I predicted the winner of the presidential election correctly.  I got 49 states right this time, my best showing ever.  As noted above, I nailed Romney's popular vote and I'm only 0.3% off on Obama's, although those numbers could still change.  That's actually better than Nate Silver, for all you 538 junkies (I am proudly one).  He can have the glory, I just like to be right.  Facts can be fun, and good for you too, a lesson the Romney campaign would have done well to learn at the start of this campaign.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Not Too Close To Call

The Sovern Nation politics blog has been dormant for months, a victim of my Twitter addiction and the time-consuming demands of my radio work.  I am reviving it today to make my quadrennial presidential election prediction, because 140 characters simply won't do.  I'll check back in after the election with some analysis and post mortem, too.  

Forty years ago, I went to see a presidential candidate in person for the first time.  It was Senator George McGovern, at one of his final campaign rallies, in New Jersey.  McGovern's oratory was overshadowed by the eloquence of the man who introduced him, the young Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.  But the crowd was huge, the atmosphere electric, the excitement level unlike anything I'd ever experienced.  I was only 11, and it was the first presidential election in which I was fully engaged.  I'm sure many in that enormous throng came away thinking their man might actually upset the incumbent.  Polling was a less exact science then, and far less incessant.  A few days later I borrowed one of my dad's yellow legal pads, compiled all the information I could gather, and made my first-ever election prediction: Nixon would win.  Sorry George (may he rest in peace).

As it turned out, that was not a tough call, even for an 11-year-old.  President Nixon was re-elected in what was, at the time, the largest electoral landslide in history (he beat McGovern 61%-38%, and won 520 electoral votes to McGovern's 17*, an Electoral College wipe-out exceeded only by Ronald Reagan's 525-13 win a dozen years later).

In 2012, margins like that seem almost inconceivable.  Voters in California and Alabama agreeing on who should be president?  Democrats voting overwhelmingly for the Republican?  Republicans embracing a candidate from the other party?  The country is so polarized today, it's hard to imagine an election not being close anymore.  Since 1988, no presidential candidate has won the popular vote by more than eight and a half points, although we have seen landslide-level results in the Electoral College (Bush beat Dukakis 426-111; Clinton beat Dole 379-159).

When this election cycle began, it seemed like it might mirror Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election; now, after flirting briefly with 2000-level unpredictability, it looks more to me like 2004, when a not especially popular incumbent overcame some structural disadvantages to eke out a second term over a sometimes awkward challenger from Massachusetts, thanks to a narrow victory in Ohio (does that sound familiar enough?).

This election remains a tough one to get exactly right.  Starting with that 1972 Nixon victory, I am eight out of ten in my general election predictions (George W. Bush confounded me twice; in 2000, I called the popular vote for Bush but the Electoral College for Gore, a crazy split I had never predicted before, but of course I got it backwards).  In 1976, I started predicting the major party nominees before the first primary or caucus.  I am ten out of ten picking the Republican nominee, and eight of ten predicting the Democrat.  So that's a total of 26 predictions right out of 30, a success rate of 86.7%.  In the 2008 election, the final Gallup Poll predicted Barack Obama would win by 13 points.  The last CBS News/New York Times projected a nine-point Obama victory.  I said Obama would win by six, 52.5-46.5%.  Obama wound up with 52.9%, but McCain only had 45.7%, so I was off by a total of 1.2%.  I picked 47 of the 51 states (and DC) right, but I missed on four large swing states that I thought were closer, so I was way off on the Electoral College (I predicted Obama would win 291-247 but the final numbers were 365-173).  So take my educated guess with whatever size grain of salt seems appropriate.

There is a near-constant stream of predictive data to absorb these days.  My inbox is stuffed daily with new polls from public firms, private ones, the campaigns themselves.  Nate Silver crunches the numbers for all to see (and takes undue heat for it from scoffing Republicans, while grateful Democrats - this year, at least - bow toward his laptop) at his indispensable 538 blog.  There are more websites, blogs and poll trackers than any sentient being could possibly consume.  I know people on both sides who are guilty of selection bias, cherry-picking the polls they like the best while dismissing the others as biased, flawed, rendered moot by laughable methodology.

To which I say: take a deep breath and step back.  Look at the big picture.  The consensus of the national popular vote polling is that this race is a dead heat.  Every poll is either tied, or shows a narrow lead (mostly for Obama at this point) that is within the margin of error.  That means the outcome could be anywhere from Romney winning by six to Obama winning by six, and few of these surveys will have been "wrong."  The most useful information they provide is that there seems to be a late trend towards President Obama, which began when Hurricane Sandy struck and accelerated in the final 48 hours of the campaign.

Trends like that tend to be instructive. But as we all know, Americans don't actually elect their presidents - they choose electors from each state, who do that for them.  And a review of the state-by-state data shows a narrow, but probably sufficient, edge for President Obama.  I am not a disciple of the Real Clear Politics "polling average," which simply adds together different kinds of polls with vastly diverse methodologies and averages their results, which strikes me as silly.  RCP also omits about as many legitimate polls as it includes. I cast a wider net for polling data, and the ones I read have consistently told me, for most of this campaign, that President Obama is likely to carry a majority of the battleground states.

Probability is about what could happen versus what should happen.  Could there be an unexpectedly high Republican turnout in the suburbs of Philadelphia that hands Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney? Absolutely.  Could Ohio independents and undecideds break as a bloc for Romney on Election Day and deprive the president of those 18 precious electoral votes? Sure.  Could the Romney ground game be superior in Iowa, springing a Hawkeye State surprise that puts Mitt over the top? No question.  The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants had no business winning the last two Super Bowls.  They barely even made the playoffs at all. The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants were long shots to win the last two World Series.  Oddsmakers said none of those teams was likely to win - but they all did.  So saying President Obama will probably win is not saying that Mitt Romney definitely won't.  But the preponderance of the available information tells me the president should win.

Now I don't base my predictions solely on polling and other empirical data.  I've traveled to a dozen states this campaign cycle, including the critical swing states of New Hampshire, Nevada, Florida and North Carolina. I interview voters, cover campaign events, talk with the candidates.  I meet with local pollsters and pundits, quiz the undecided and try to get a sense of the public mood.  Then I combine my own reporting with all those numbers on my computer, add a dash of gut hunch, and spit out a prediction.  It's not entirely scientific, but it almost always works.

(I will also add that although I covered him in person many, many times, George W. Bush is the only president, or major presidential candidate, since 1976 that I have never actually "met" or interviewed.  Maybe that lack of contact was the missing ingredient that led me astray in predicting his two elections).

There is a nagging spot in my gut that tells me Romney is going to win.  President Obama's embarrassingly poor performance in the first debate turned the election in Romney's direction.  Subsequent events - the next two debates, improving economic numbers, Hurricane Sandy - have turned it back.  But there's been an unquestionable tightening in the Midwestern states in particular, and I would not be that surprised if Romney were to win Ohio, after all, and with it, the White House.  As I said though, my predictions aren't based just on gut feelings, or on the polls, but on a combination of factors.  And after I push the "stir" button on my political blender, here is what I come out with (the swing states in bold type):

President Obama will win California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, for a total of 294 electoral votes.

Mitt Romney will win Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming for a total of 244 electoral votes.

In order of most likely for Obama to most likely for Romney, I rank the swing states this way: Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina.  If there is real momentum for the president, he could pick up Florida and Colorado, giving him as many as 332 electoral votes.  If the pendulum swings the other way, Romney could take Virginia, leaving the president at 281.  If it swings far enough for him to capture Ohio too, then obviously Romney will win, 275-263.  But I don't think that will happen.  I'm sticking with my 294-244 prediction.

On the popular vote, I keep reminding those people who say President Obama has to get to 50% or he loses, that he doesn't.  These two are probably playing for 98% of the vote.  There are more, and stronger than usual, third, fourth and fifth party candidates on the ballots in most states, who will probably combine to take about two percent of the vote. So the winner probably only needs 49% plus one. I think President Obama will top 50% anyway.  My official prediction is:

Barack Obama 50.2%
Mitt Romney    47.9%

Remember, it can take a month before we have the final, final numbers.  In 2008, Barack Obama's margin of victory increased a full point, from six to seven, during four weeks of ballot counting.  And if Ohio or Iowa or Florida is especially close, we could be left hanging for a few days - or longer - on that electoral vote count.

It could be a long, late Election Night.  I will be tweeting like a gatling gun at @SovernNation, and reporting live on KCBS 740AM/106.9FM in San Francisco, and will also be checking in as part of the CBS Radio News network coverage. Please tune in for constant returns, reaction and analysis. Be sure to vote, and see you tomorrow....

*Yes, sharp-eyed readers, 520 + 17 only = 537.  The 538th electoral vote that year went to the Libertarian candidate, John Hospers, a pal of Ayn Rand's.  A "faithless elector" who was pledged to Nixon cast his ballot for Hospers instead when the Electoral College met in December.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Romney Has No Aloha"

Mitt Romney can afford to buy his own private island.  He doesn't have to.  He already owns all the islands under U.S. control, or at least the Republican neighborhoods on them.  He swamped Rick "You Puerto Ricans should all learn English" Santorum in yesterday's Puerto Rico primary, adding the Isle of Enchantment to his archipelago of victories in Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas, American Samoa and Hawaii.  At this rate, he's a cinch to carry Manhattan and might even win Madagascar.  Romney should root for Texas or Louisiana to float off into the Gulf of Mexico so that he can finally pick up a win in the true South.

Romney isn't the darling of the islands because of his tropical flair or his hula moves.  He's winning America's most remote territories thanks to superior organization and financial strength.  He and Ron Paul are the only Republicans who truly have 50-state campaigns, or, more accurately, 56.  It's no coincidence that they're the only GOP candidates who have run before.  They've learned from past experience and they've built transcontinental operations, unlike Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who are living state-to-state, cobbling together teams only as they survive long enough to need them. 

In Maui last week, it was clear that Ron Paul was the people's choice.  Hawaii's first-ever Republican presidential caucus coincided with a "Day of Liberation" declared by the "Reinstated Hawaiian Government" movement, which seeks to restore Hawaii's monarchy and its independence as a sovereign island nation (perhaps Puerto Rico can replace it as the 50th state once everyone in San Juan learns English to Senator Santorum's liking).  Monarchists paraded around Maui, honking their horns and waving Hawaiian flags.  Then many of them trooped into their local caucus meeting and voted for Paul (others didn't vote at all, refusing to participate in legitimizing the federal government). 

The local Paul campaign wooed supporters with free tours of the nearby lava caves.  Romney's team countered with free samples from an organic mango farm.  But the Republican frontrunner had more than fruit slices up his sleeve.  He'd long ago locked up the support of the local party apparatus and Hawaii's GOP establishment.  He ran a sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign on heavily populated Oahu, especially around the Brigham Young University campus on the North Shore.  He sent his son Matt to rally supporters on the eve of the caucus.

Romney eked out a victory on Maui, edging Paul by just nine votes.  Paul beat him by 22 votes to take the Big Island, Hawaii.  Statewide, Santorum was running a surprisingly strong second, probably buoyed by his wins in Alabama and Mississippi a few hours earlier (the results there reached the islands just as Hawaiian Republicans were heading to their caucuses), until the ballots were counted in Honolulu and in that Mormon cluster to the north.

Romney won an astounding 92% of the votes on Oahu's North Shore, enough to pull away from the field and win the state caucus by 20 points.  Paul finished a distant third overall, bitterly disappointing his Maui brigade.  The victory guaranteed Romney at least nine and probably 12 of Hawaii's 20 delegates, padding his already 2-to-1 delegate advantage over Santorum, and more than offsetting his narrow losses to Santorum in the two Southern states (Romney also won all of American Samoa's delegates that night).  Yes, Santorum won the evening's headlines thanks to his Deep South sweep, but Romney knows convention delegates are the name of the game, and he went home with the most.

Still, the enthusiasm gap plagues Romney, even in places where he wins.  Two Hawaiians who caucused for Paul described him as a "true patriot" and "a man who knows who he is and stays true to himself."  When I asked what they thought of Romney, one made a face and shook his head in disgust.  The other put it bluntly: "Romney has no aloha," he told me.  "No soul.  There is no spirit inside him."  I pointed out that most Hawaiians must disagree, because Romney wound up with more than twice as many votes as their man.  "No," said the Paul voter.  "They know he has no aloha.  They vote for him because they go along with what the party tells them to do, or because they think he can beat Obama and Ron Paul can't.  But he can't beat Obama.  Obama has a lot of aloha, way too much for Romney."

Even though he won this caucus, Romney can say "aloha" to his chances of winning Hawaii in November, just as he would say "adios" to Puerto Rico if that island's voters were allowed to cast ballots in the general election.  Both lean heavily to the Democrats (native son Obama carried Hawaii with 72% of the vote in 2008).  But right now Romney's only goal is to do whatever it takes to win the Republican nomination.  That means amassing 1144 delegates by the time the primaries come to an end in one of his adopted home states, Utah, in June.  The way he sees it, he doesn't need aloha, or soul, or the force, or whatever you want to call it.  He only needs numbers.  He's veering far to the right to try to get them, dangerously far, and he'll have to stay there at least through August to keep the nomination from slipping away, leaving him precious little time to sprint back to the middle to lure independents from Obama in the fall.  History hasn't been kind to candidates who value organizational strength over a passionate message, who rely on money and party clout to beat back an ideologically purer primary challenger.  Just ask Gerald Ford in 1976, or Fritz Mondale in 1984.  Or even Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1996.

There are no more islands on the Republican primary calendar (well, except Rhode Island, which isn't one).  To clinch the nomination, Romney's going to have to find his footing on terra firma, and stop Santorum head-to-head in states where they're both actually competing.  He'll need to overcome conservative passion for his rivals in the heart of the mainland, in Illinois and Indiana, Wisconsin and New York, and especially Texas and California.  He'll try to win there the same way he won in Hawaii: with a finely tuned organizational machine and strong turnout in the urban centers.  It's probably too late for him to learn the hula.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Race Is On

I'm not sure which overtime nail-biter was more riveting: Monday's Stanford-Oklahoma State thriller in the Fiesta Bowl, or Tuesday's crazy, razor-close Iowa Republican caucus.  For Cardinal fans, the football game was certainly more heartbreaking.  For supporters of all but two of the Republican candidates, Iowa was.

This kind of real human drama is what can make both politics and sports so compelling.  Since primaries and caucuses became a regular feature of presidential campaigns, starting in Oregon in 1910 and really catching on for good in 1936, there simply has never been one like the Hawkeye Cauci we just witnessed.  In the wee hours, CNN actually roused the two ladies in Clinton County whose sleepy, shaky vote tabulations, worked out live on the telephone, determined the outcome (and they immediately started trending on Twitter).

In case you went to bed before the final numbers came in, here they are:

Mitt Romney          25%  (30,015 votes)
Rick Santorum       25%  (30,007 votes)
Ron Paul                21%
Newt Gingrich        13%
Rick Perry              10%
Michele Bachmann  5%
Jon Huntsman         1%

Yes, folks, Romney won by eight votes.  That is simply unprecedented in the history of American elections.  Bush beating Gore by 537 votes in Florida in 2000?  A veritable landslide.  The Iowa result shatters the previous record for narrowest victory in a primary or caucus, held by South Dakota Governor Warren Green, who won his home state Republican primary in 1936 by 257 votes over Idaho Senator William Borah (they both lost the GOP nomination, though, to Alf Landon, who went on to crushing defeat at the hands of FDR).

The stunner here isn't just the closeness of this caucus, but which two Republicans came out on top.  A month ago, this was a battle between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul for the conservative soul of the Iowa GOP.  Mitt Romney didn't intend to contest the caucus that intensely, not with social conservatives dominating the Iowa Republican Party and a sure victory awaiting him in New Hampshire.  Rick Santorum was an asterisk in the polls.  But with the collapse of first Herman Cain, then Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, Romney sensed an opening and began to pour resources into the state.  Meanwhile, Santorum was plugging away, biding his time, staying true to himself and hoping the conservatives would eventually come to him.  They did.  Now both the Massachusetts moderate and the Pennsylvania conservative can lay claim to outperforming expectations and emerging from Iowa as the only true contenders for the nomination.

As I wrote Monday, Santorum is still a long shot, even with his out-of-nowhere surge in Iowa.  Most American voters will react the way my wife did when she saw him on TV last night: "Rick who?"  When they Google Santorum, the first thing they'll find will be the derogatory definition that's haunted him ever since his notorious comments about homosexuality in 2003.  He has little money and no ground organization in the states ahead, most critically Florida.  He'll get massive media attention now, and certainly an infusion of donations and volunteers, especially from those abandoning the Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich campaigns.  He can consolidate the anti-Romney conservatives and present himself as the only viable alternative.  He and Paul will gang up on Romney in this weekend's New Hampshire debates, while Gingrich spews venom at the frontrunner and becomes the bomb-throwing attack dog he swore he wouldn't be.  But Santorum has to ramp up in a hurry, and while the party establishment rallies around Romney, the Pennsylvanian will feel the heat of Romney's Super PAC, which will educate Republican voters about some of his more extreme positions, arguing they make him unelectable in November, and he probably won't have the resources or campaign infrastructure to respond effectively.

Romney, in the meantime, is on the verge of becoming the only non-incumbent presidential candidate ever to sweep both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.  It just hasn't happened before, and it's likely to give him powerful momentum heading into the Southern states, where he has trailed Gingrich in the polls (Romney's 25% is the lowest in history for an Iowa caucus winner, but he benefits from a perfect storm: first, a fractured field of conservatives who split the Iowa right wing, leaving the moderates to him, and next, a primary state in which he happens to be a virtual favorite son, thanks to his vacation home there and his familiarity as governor of neighboring Massachusetts).  Santorum will try to take Newt's spot at the top in South Carolina and Florida, but it'll be a tall order, especially in the less conservative Sunshine State.

None of this means Romney coasts from here.  Ron Paul and his fanatic base will stick around for a while.  The Iowa outcome underscores that conservatives just can't stomach the wishy-washy Romney, whom many see as a robotic opportunist.  Voters are clearly moved by Santorum's sincerity, by his emotional, populist appeal, by his air of authenticity.  He's a smart guy and a terrific campaigner.  His "victory" speech last night (delivered while Romney was pulling ahead of him for good) may have been the best I've seen so far this campaign season.  It was heartfelt and real, and if that's his introduction for many voters, it will serve him well.  Meanwhile, Romney stumbled awkwardly through his basic stump speech, his laugh lines falling flat like some bad Catskills comedian.  The contrast between the Teleprompted Romney and the off-the-cuff Santorum will be even more stark in the days ahead.

Romney needs to break through the 25% ceiling that's kept him from pulling away from the flawed field of conservatives trying to chase him down.  Electability is his trump card, and he's banking that, outside Iowa, more Republican voters prioritize beating President Obama over sticking with their core convictions.  It's a cynical calculation but I think it's a winning play for Romney.  He'll also be helped by a return to the focus on jobs and the economy, which weren't the central issues in Iowa, where the economy is relatively strong.  The argument that Romney is the turnaround artist the country needs will resonate much more in the states to come.

Whatever lies ahead, this campaign is off to a much more rousing start than anyone anticipated, and the fun, and drama, are just beginning.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Chasing Shadows

For 36 years now (my God, how could I possibly be this old?) I have been predicting the major party presidential nominees before the caucuses and primaries begin.  Through some inexplicable confluence of luck, gut hunches (or maybe that was just something I ate) and complex planetary alignment, I'm 9-for-9 picking the GOP nominee.  I'm only 7-for-9 on the Democrats - and I've got a two-race losing streak (yeah yeah, still living down that Howard Dean pick in '04 and smarting from that Hillary guess last time).

Past results are no guarantee of future success.  The more "expert" I supposedly become, the less I seem to know - although I did predict John McCain's nomination while the rest of the punditocracy was still planning Rudy Giuliani's inauguration, so some of my fading instincts remain intact.

At any rate, it is the eve of the 2012 Iowa Caucus, which means it's time to resurrect the blog just in time to crawl out on a very shaky limb and make my quadrennial prognostications, whether I want to or not.

This time, the Democrats are easy.  Despite those mystifying robocalls touting Hillary Clinton as a replacement candidate for Barack Obama, I will boldly and confidently predict that President Obama will win the Democratic primaries and be nominated for a second term.  There.  Snapped that losing streak on the donkey side (and I don't buy that Clinton-and-Biden-job swap rumor for a second, either.  Sorry, Robert Reich, your trial balloon has just been popped).

As for the Republicans...well, the last 12 months might as well have never happened.  A year ago, Mitt Romney was the frontrunner and the nominee apparent, and I've seen nothing to change that calculus.  The most conservative GOP voters still don't trust him.  Most of the evangelicals will never support him.  But I still don't see a viable alternative for the Republican Party.  Each of the more conservative candidates has taken a turn as the Not Romney, and each has faded as fast as he or she has risen.  I'm puzzled by why it's taken this long for Rick Santorum to get his chance, and perhaps since his surge is coming last, he can actually parlay it into an Iowa caucus victory and a sustained spell as the Anyone But Romney candidate.  Santorum's always been the longest of long shots - ultra-conservative, he couldn't even get re-elected in Pennsylvania so how could he win the presidency? - but he comes across as smart, sincere and committed.  No one can question his conservative principles or his knowledge of the issues, which you'd think would endear him to the voters who matter most in an Iowa GOP caucus.  Through every spasm of excitement about Trump, Perry, Bachmann, Cain, I wondered why Santorum wasn't catching fire with the right, and if he ever would.  Finally, he is, and just in time for him to emerge from Iowa, improbably, in the top tier.

But even if Santorum or Ron Paul wins in Iowa tomorrow, it won't be enough to deny Mitt Romney the nomination.  Neither of them can broaden his appeal beyond the party's right wing, and neither can plausibly move enough to the middle to defeat President Obama in November.  The Republicans remain torn in the way that the out party always is: when the Democrats aren't in control, there's a fight between its liberal wing and the pragmatists who want to nominate a centrist who can win the White House (read: Bill Clinton).  When the GOP is on the outs, it squabbles between the conservative purists and the nominate-an-electable-moderate crowd.  In California, the conservatives consistently outnumber the pragmatists, which is why the Republican Party here is sliding towards irrelevance.  The conservatives dominate the process in Iowa, too.  But the national GOP establishment desperately wants to deny Obama a second term, so it is rallying around Romney now, trying to consolidate his support and present his nomination as inevitable.  It probably is.

Romney, Paul and Santorum will all declare victory of sorts in Iowa, no matter who wins the most votes (or the most delegates, which won't be decided until much later in Iowa's nominating process). Either Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann probably will too - whichever of them runs fourth will pronounce him/herself this cycle's "comeback kid" and live, briefly, to fight on in New Hampshire and South Carolina.  But the rest will be mortally wounded and will bow out, followed soon enough by Jon Huntsman after he gets blasted back to Utah by Romney in the New Hampshire primary.

That will leave Romney as the mainstream establishment frontrunner, and Paul and Santorum to slug it out for the conservative mantle.  When the campaign shifts to Florida at the end of the month, Romney's superior organization and financial firepower will win that state's winner-take-all retail TV ad war, and he will win again in Nevada a month from now to essentially end the race.  The campaign to actually clinch the nomination will slog on, now that the GOP has changed its rules so that most states award delegates proportionally, but it will become a formality, and the Obama-Romney general election sniping will begin in earnest by Groundhog Day.

Which is apropos, since Mitt Romney has been looking over his shoulder at the shape-shifting shadow of "the conservative candidate" for more than a year now.  Within a month, the sun will be shining brightly enough on his candidacy to spring him forward, into a fall fight with President Obama.

Tune to KCBS (740AM/106.9FM/ for returns from Iowa, with attendant analysis, and from New Hampshire next week.  I will be blogging on a regular basis again now that 2012 is here and my Twitter novel is in the rear view mirror.