Heck, I dunno. There are more potential storylines that can come out of the order of Iowa finishes than I can keep track of. Stories like do Perry or Gingrich finish fourth? I don’t have the energy to keep up with most of them. So I’m going to focus on whether Santorum finishes first, becomes the single biggest story of Caucus night, and give him a chance to become the dominant non-Romney. I don’t know if it happens. I was pretty confident that the Gingrich and Cain bubbles would burst, and that there would be another turn of the wheel of not-Romney, but tonight I have low confidence. I think a lot of the final result will come down to several factors:
1. Do people who go intending to vote Bachmann see their smallish numbers and decide to go with the other socially conservative hawkish candidate in order to prevent a win by either the social issues squishy(in the sense of being a flip-flopper) Romney or the unacceptable on foreign policy Ron Paul?
2. As Gingrich went down, Ron Paul’s numbers went from the teens to the twenties. I’m not sure that was all about not worrying about Iran getting nukes and more people loving the gold standard. Some orthodox conservatives were willing to look past their differences with Paul because he seemed more serious about reducing the size of government than Romney or Gingrich and no one else seemed to have a chance to win. Did the stories about the newsletters and Santorum’s rise as a viable (in Iowa anyway) candidate pry these orthodox conservatives from Paul?
3. I have no way of checking this, but I’ve read that Gingrich isn’t as well organized for the Caucuses as some other candidates. I’ve read that he doesn’t have precinct captains in lots of places. I wonder if some leaderless Gingrich-leaning voters get talked into helping Santorum beat Romney for first place rather than helping Gingrich beat Perry for fourth place.
4. Every candidate spins you sometimes. It is just that some candidates spin you less than others - and I think that matters. That is one thing I like about Santorum and Ron Paul. I don’t think Paul is leveling with us on the newsletter business. Santorum is spinning about pork. He played the game to help get elected (just like Perry working Congress for Texas pork.) But on the whole, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum spend a lot less time seeming like they are trying to remember what they are supposed to pretend to believe on a given issue.
5. Why Santorum is the better than the other anti-Romney’s that have risen and fallen before him: He is much better informed about national issues than Perry. He has been much more consistently conservative than the Newt Gingrich of the last dozen years and, unlike Gingrich, he has leveled with us about the need for serious Medicare reform. Unlike Herman Cain and Bachmann, he never pretended that it would be a good idea to try to balance the budget in one year without tax increases. The list is not exhaustive.
6. But Santorum still probably isn’t the person we need. His proposed federal spending cap of 18% of GDP is unrealistic as politics and probably as policy too. I would be surprised if Santorum’s tax plan turned out to be revenue neutral.