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Web Chat: Analyzing the Iowa Caucuses

In the GOP race to win the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney beat a surging Rick Santorum by only 8 votes, with Ron Paul showing a strong third. The close split of Iowa Republican voters suggests dissatisfaction with the candidates, and a willingness to hold off deciding until the last moment. On January 4, Senior Fellow William Galston answered your questions on the results of the Iowa caucuses and their potential political impact in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO.

12:30 Erika Lovley: Hi everyone. Let's begin.

12:30 Comment From Anne: Is Iowa a fair representation of the country's electorate? Aside from tradition, is there a reason why one state is allowed to have so much influence on a party's nominee for president?

12:32 William Galston: Iowa isn't a perfect match for the country as a whole, but few states are. It has a smaller minority population and a much lower unemployment rate, and its Republican party is more dominated by social conservatives than in many other states. On the other hand, it does reward face-to-face campaigning (as it did with Santorum) and thus helps reduce the impact of money. Not a bad mix overall.

12:33 Comment From Tony: What happened to Michelle Bachmann's campaign? She was victorious at the straw poll and now comes in last at the caucuses.

12:35 William Galston: The straw poll says relatively little about underlying support for a candidate, and much more about the money and effort a candidate is willing to devote to the event. As she continued her campaign, Bachmann didn't appear to be a truly serious presidential candidate. She was prone to wild exaggerations and had a mixed record during the debates. In addition, many believe that social conservatives (her base of support) are deeply ambivalent about public leadership roles for women.

12:35 Comment From Bob: Can you explain the caucus system briefly? Do any other states besides Iowa use this unique way of voting?

12:38 William Galston: Sure. Unlike primaries, caucuses require citizens to show up physically at a specific place and time. So you need an extra level of commitment to participate—especially in an Iowa winter. For that reason, caucuses tend to have lower turnout rates than primaries (about 20 percent in Iowa) and bring out the most intense voters. Many states use caucuses rather than primaries for presidential nominations, but I don't have an exact number for you.

12:38 Comment From Fran: Do you see the GOP nomination battle wrapping up fairly quickly or will this become a long, drawn-out affair as the candidates fight across the country?

12:39 William Galston: Most people expect Romney to win in New Hampshire; the only question is his margin. If he goes on to win in South Carolina, the race is likely to be wrapped up by the end of the month. If he loses there and in Florida, it'll go on at least through March.

12:39 Comment From Tim: Why were negative attacks so effective in Iowa at derailing the campaign of Newt Gingrich?

12:42 William Galston: In a year in which mistrust of government is at a record high, the charge that Gingrich is an insider pretending to be an outsider drew a lot of blood. He was never able to explain what he did to earn $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored enterprise that many conservatives believe contributed to the mortgage meltdown. Appearing in a public service ad for a cap-and-trade system with Nancy Pelosi just made things worse.

12:42 Comment From John: Now that Santorum has shot to the front of the pack, how long can his campaign hold its position given that it has limited staff and has devoted so much time in Iowa?

12:44 William Galston: Good question. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee—the anointed candidate of the social conservatives—shot out of Iowa in first place with 34 percent of the vote. He then got 11 percent in New Hampshire and failed to win South Carolina. I don't expect Santorum to do much better than Huckabee in NH, and his only chance in SC is to go one-on-one against Romney, which I don't think is going to happen.

12:44 Comment From Laura: Do you think Jon Huntsman has a chance, given that he skipped the Iowa caucuses? Are they that important?

12:47 William Galston: Not really. Huntsman has campaigned non-stop in NH for months, skipping Iowa entirely. He now stands at 13 percent, versus Romney's 47. Unless he gets a huge surge of support in the next few days, he'll finish third (behind Paul). He has lots of (family) money in back of him, but he hasn't established a clear rationale for his candidacy. I'd be surprised if he got much traction after NH.

12:47 Comment From Adam D: Do the Iowa results, particularly the rise of Santorum, point to a long race that will continue into spring, or does Romney still have a shot at closing this out early?

12:48 William Galston: As said in response to a previous question, Romney could clinch the nomination by the end of the month with victories in SC and Florida. If he loses those states, be prepared for a long race.

12:48 Comment From Lucy: With Congresswoman Bachmann’s departure from the field, who are her supporters likely to flock to? What is the impact of her departure on the upcoming primaries? And how will the GOP appeal to women voters when there is no longer even one woman in the race?

12:50 William Galston: She doesn't have that many supporters. They'll either go home or rally around Santorum. As for appealing to women, two points: (1) women have been known to find male candidates appealing; and (2) a number of women are plausible candidates for the Republican vice presidential nomination.

12:50 Comment From Cynthia: Fox/CNN both reported record turnout/votes at the caucuses. Do you have the sense that we will see this across the board in this election year?

12:52 William Galston: I'm not sure that's right factually. If my math is right, about 122,000 people showed up at last night's caucuses, not all that different from 2008. It may technically be a record, but it wasn't anything like the huge increase that Democrats saw in 2008.

12:52 Comment From Thurber J. Michener: Is Rick Santorum really a viable national candidate? Will we be seeing more of the Santorum surge? Are social issues and values voters poised to make a comeback in 2012?

12:54 William Galston: This is not a big year for social issues. Among conservatives, economic and fiscal issues are paramount. Santorum hasn't run simply as a social conservative, but rather as a "full-spectrum" conservative on economics and foreign policy as well. We'll see whether his claims stand up under closer scrutiny. He'll now get some national attention; whether he becomes an effective national candidate depends in part on whether he gets to go one-on-one with Romney.

12:55 Comment From Gary Feuerberg: Will the ongoing feud between Gingrich and Romney have legs and will it eventually hurt Romney? Is it likely that Romney's allies will let up on the negative advertising? Will the American public begin to question the PAC system as a result?

12:57 William Galston: The feud will have a big impact in New Hampshire, that's for sure. Gingrich is really mad and will attack Romney with everything he has, and the Manchester Union-Leader will be cheering him on. I expect the Romney forces to do whatever they think is necessary to counteract his efforts. We'll see whether these attacks weaken Romney and, if so, whether they strengthen Gingrich.

12:58 Comment From Bill in VA: Seems pro- and anti-GOP views are split over the meaning of this for Romney. Some say it's a bad result—divisive GOP, surging religious conservatives, etc. Some say it's great for Romney heading into New Hampshire. What lessons for the GOP race and general election do you take out of the result?

1:01 William Galston: In my view, the result is good for Romney. The two candidates (Gingrich and Perry) who might have given him a real national race did poorly in Iowa, and the two other top-three finishes (Santorum and Paul) don't have much of a chance of receiving the nomination. So unless Gingrich can start making up some ground in NH or Perry pulls off a miracle in SC, Romney is in a good position to win early and begin unifying the Republican party around his candidacy.

1:01 Erika Lovley: Thanks everyone. See you next week.