So what really happened in Iowa? Candidates can’t win the nomination in Iowa, but they can lose it if they expose a colossal weakness (see: Dean, Howard). And the big loser in Iowa was Mitt Romney, whose campaign is now over.
Let’s look at what happened to Romney in the Hawkeye State:
Tom Edsall reports that Romney spent north of $80 million during 2007; more than $10 million of that was on TV ads in Iowa. He campaigned in the state longer than any other Republican. He amassed a giant lead in the polls, which stretched to more than 20 points at times. Despite all of this, he sat in fourth and eventually fifth, place in national polls. His aides kept assuring people that their strategy was to win Iowa, leverage that into a victory in New Hampshire, and that, eventually, his national numbers would follow. But on Thursday night Mike Huckabee beat Romney like a drum, winning by 9 points.
Losing isn’t what’s fatal to Romney—the problem is that Iowa shows that voters just don’t like him. Mitt Romney may be a smart executive, a good man, and many other wonderful things. But he’s lousy at winning elections. As an incumbent governor, he ducked a fight with an unproven Deval Patrick because he knew he couldn’t win. As the heavy favorite in Iowa, spending tens of millions of dollars and more time in the state than anyone else, he couldn’t beat an unknown, under-funded former Arkansas governor. According to Rasmussen Reports, Romney has—by a huge margin—the worst favorable/unfavorable rating of anyone running from either party. If voters don’t like you, nothing else matters.
Romney’s support in New Hampshire, which has always been soft, is likely to splinter now. If he loses New Hampshire, which I’d put pretty good odds on, then my guess is Romney drops out after South Carolina on January 19. He could hang in until Michigan, but by that time, his numbers there will probably have much degraded.
Of course, since Romney can self-finance (he’s already spent $17 million of his own money on the campaign), he can hang around as long as his ambition and ego require.
Hillary Clinton lost, too, although her third-place finish has a (tiny) bright side. First the good news: By finishing a nip and tuck in front of her, John Edwards stays in the race and keeps the anti-Clinton vote split. Then there’s the bad news: Bill Clinton lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992; Hillary has not yet proven to possess his electoral resiliency. This is the first time she’s suffered electoral defeat and it’s not obvious that she must recover.
To make matters worse, I’ve been with Obama in New Hampshire all day and the crowds he’s drawing are very impressive, very smitten, and very energetic. I’ve followed Clinton quite a bit in the last few months and I’ve never seen her draw this type of support.