If we are to believe the pundits, the voters have spoken, and a number of them — approximately equivalent to the population of Murfreesboro, Tenn. — have anointed Mitt Romney as the all-but-certain Republican nominee. Given Barack Obama's mediocre approval ratings, he has a good chance of being our next president.
It is a bizarre process by which we choose our presidential candidates, in the dead of winter in two small states wildly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole and where the populace seems to spend most of its time sitting around diners.
The Iowa caucuses don't actually pick the delegates to the national convention, but pick the people who will pick the people who do pick the delegates. But this is justified as an intimate winnowing process.
Iowa succeeded in winnowing only one: native daughter and early favorite Michele Bachmann. She dropped out after winning less than 5 percent of the vote. Herman "9-9-9" Cain was winnowed out, not by the Iowans, but by his ex-girlfriends, whose numbers seemed to grow daily.
New Hampshire, whose primary actually means something, is supposed to serve something of the same function. But Rick Perry felt that, according to a count three hours after the polls closed, 0.7 percent of the vote was enough of a mandate to push on to South Carolina.
Unlike in Iowa, where he won by eight votes, Romney cleaned up in New Hampshire with almost 40 percent of the vote, 15 points better than libertarian Ron Paul, whose loyal followers just seem to like him without studying his political principles too closely. (Really, abolish the Fed and return to the gold standard?)
Jon Huntsman finished a respectable third, leaving him well placed — for 2016, assuming that Obama can contrive a third term.
Newt Gingrich, the verbally impetuous former House speaker, finished with just under 10 percent. Although his campaign is going down in flames, he's sticking around in hopes of taking somebody else with him, preferably Romney.
Right behind Gingrich was Rick Santorum, the second-place finisher in Iowa, who now hopes that the evangelicals and social conservatives of South Carolina will save his campaign. But early polls in the Palmetto State show a strong lead for Romney.
Political handicappers early on declared that if Romney won both Iowa and New Hampshire, becoming the first non-incumbent GOP presidential candidate to do so, the nomination was effectively his.
But then the pundits realized that if they turned out the lights too soon, the party would be over and they would have to disband and go home. Now South Carolina is being pitched as hard-core conservatives' last chance to stop Romney, and if he wins there, the nomination is effectively — well, you get the picture.