The real winners in Iowa are the candidates who beat expectations
So whereas McCain could score third in 2008 and consider it a win, Dean placing third in 2004 was a devastating defeat. It was all in the expectations.
After Romney's loss to Huckabee in 2008, he tried to wash his hands of the state, choosing for 2012 to focus on New Hampshire and subsequent primaries. Romney maintained a skeleton staff in Iowa, and then stood by and watched as challenger after challenger crashed in televised debates. In mid-December when Gingrich, his last strong challenger, tumbled (admittedly shoved by Romney with tough negative ads), Romney at last began to play to win in Iowa.
But the power of the quirky Iowa base remains in force, with Ron Paul continuing to poll strongly by appealing to anti-government libertarians and the suddenly ascendant Santorum picking up social conservatives. Romney's hope tonight is to allow Paul and Santorum, neither considered a serious long-term contender, to split the anti-Romney vote, thereby further sidelining Gingrich, the only remaining real threat. So on the eve of the quadrennial Iowa circus, the game of expectations is being played again. Having finally entered the fray, Romney could be damaged if he slips to third. But a close second that further deflates his main challenger will be seen as victory enough.
As always in Iowa, it's not the delegate count that matters: it's the narrative. And in the minds of many observers, it is one driven by the few at the expense of the many.
Eric Schulzke is a political scientist who lives in Pleasant Grove. Email: eric[at]a13.org
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