The US presidential primary system is a strange beast – the race opens with elections in a number of small states, a small proportion of delegates decided over an extended period, with the vast bulk of delegates not decided until a later date.
Yet this early period, despite not having a great deal of official significance, often decides the presidential race. Even when it doesn’t, it has a substantial impact on the eventual result, with candidates’ fortunes rising or falling based on their success in early primary races.
The real significance of primaries and caucuses in Iowa and New Hampshire (and to a lesser extent other early races such as South Carolina) comes from the significance given to them by the media, political figures, fundraisers and to a lesser extent the voting public.
This creates a bizarre political environment where winning can mean losing and losing can mean winning. Candidates who are expected to win a race easily can suffer if they win by less than expected, while a candidate expected to perform poorly can benefit from a better-than-expected result, even if they don’t win.
The staggered timing of primaries means that an earlier primary can determine the direction of a future primary, giving a candidate the exposure or the funding needed to win larger primaries: only a few campaigns ever gain the exposure needed to raise the funds necessary to compete in the bigger primaries down the track.
The most extreme example of this style of meta-politics was the Iowa Republican caucus, held on Tuesday.
Iowa’s Republican caucus does not even decide Iowa’s 25 delegates to the Republican convention – following the nonbinding presidential ballot, precinct caucuses elect delegates – and these delegates will eventually elect the people who will elect those 25 delegates. There is no requirement that these delegates’ affiliations reflect the result of the poll.
So the result in Iowa had no impact in terms of bringing a candidate closer to the 1144 delegates that will clinch the nomination – the importance of the result is determined by what significance it is awarded by the political class – including journalists who pass judgement on the success of candidates, candidates who decide to drop out after a poor showing, supporters who switch their support to someone more ‘viable’ , or voters themselves who are influenced by previous results.
In this case, it can produce quite bizarre results. We have ended up with a result where Mitt Romney managed to outpoll Rick Santorum by a bare 8 votes out of over 120,000 cast. If the caucus actually allocated delegates, this ‘lead’ would have absolutely no impact on the allocation of delegates, while it has zero significance in determining which of the candidates is more popular amongst Iowa Republicans. Yet the US television networks devoted substantial energy to determining who managed to eke out a handful more votes to claim the ‘psychological victory’ of winning the most votes.
If the determination of who won the most votes actually determined anything, such a close result would be fought over the result in the courts for weeks before a winner is declared. Similar numbers of people vote in a single federal electorate at Australian federal elections, and results where a candidate wins by a one-digit number usually result in the election being run again. Even in a real election, there is still a margin of error when the result is so close that a winner cannot be determined beyond any doubt.
So what can be drawn from the Iowa result?
Romney remains the clear frontrunner, and probably is in a stronger position now than before. He prevented any other contender from achieving a win in Iowa, and he knocked out Rick Perry, who was the only candidate who had achieved the sort of funds needed to rival Romney’s campaign, and the only rival with more executive experience than Romney.
Romney didn’t manage a knock-out defeat, but he now moves on to states where he will continue to be a strong contender.
On the other hand, Santorum is now in a good position to consolidate the right-wing support that has been going to candidates like Perry and Bachmann, but he will still struggle in states less favourable to him than Iowa.
It will be yet to be seen if Newt Gingrich can resurrect his campaign in New Hampshire, where he was Romney’s main rival until recently. At the moment he appears to be the only possible person who could challenge Santorum’s position as the main opponent to Mitt Romney.