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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

Romney's Boring Victory

Any progressives – particularly on this side of the pond – rubbing their hands in glee at the inability of Iowa Republicans to come to a firm decision on their nominee last night should desist. For reasons outlined yesterday, Iowa was the only real chance for a second-tier candidate (which Mr Santorum almost certainly isn’t) to deal a severe blow to the clear frontrunner, Mitt Romney. That simply did not happen.

As such, this thing will be over pretty soon. Following Romney’s inevitable win in New Hampshire next week, he will be widely seen as the presumptive nominee. As for the subsequent states, South Carolina may prove difficult, but he will win easily in both Florida and Nevada, due to the expense of campaigning in the former’s vast media markets and his Mormon base in the latter. Any conservative or Democrat dream of an Anyone-But-Mitt frothing-at-the-mouth right-winger getting the nod shouldn’t hold out false hopes. This is particularly frustrating for Mr Obama’s campaign, who will be pouring over polling data predicting an exceptionally tight race between the President and the former Massachusetts governor in just about every swing state – compared to the landslide they might have hoped for just a few weeks ago if Newt Gingrich had been the nominee.

But there was a silver lining for Team Obama in last night’s results: the continued enthusiasm gap. It was much mooted in 2008 that Republicans were so disillusioned with their party’s record that vast numbers were choosing to stay at home rather than take part in the electoral process. The 239,000 voters who took part in the Iowa Democratic caucus in January of that year stood in stark contrast to just 119,000 Republicans.

In the 2010 midterms, the phenomenon was largely reversed, with Democrats disillusioned with the Obama administration opting to stay at home, while Tea Party activists flocked to the polls in a Republican landslide. Unfortunately, for ease of useful comparison, the Iowa GOP does not use caucusing for its down-ballot candidates, but it is at least anecdotally interesting that almost 227,000 Republicans chose to take part in the gubernatorial primary that year – with Terry Branstadt going on to defeat incumbent Democrat Chet Culver in November.

How many Republicans attended last night? A little over 122,000. Admittedly, this represents the highest ever number in the GOP caucus, but still pales into insignificance compared to the Democratic 2008 figures. It is also worth noting that, at 25%, Romney’s winning percentage is the lowest in the caucus’ history.

Unlike the 2008 contest, no direct comparison can be made with the other party, though Iowa Democrats claim 25,000 voters turned up to their caucus yesterday to unanimously endorse Barack Obama and discuss the campaign ahead. As such, just 5,000 fewer Obama supporters came out to take part in an almost ceremonial ritual than Mr Romney managed to motivate in his highly competitive race. This does not bode well for when it matters.

Later this year, Mr Romney’s campaign against the President will be based on the seemingly unlimited spending power both of his own machine and of his friends’ SuperPAC Restore Our Future – and it is true that an unenthusiastic vote counts for the same as an eager vote. But if he fails to inspire volunteers and activists to get involved in his campaign – just the sort of people who give up an evening to caucus in Iowa – he will find it difficult to build the mass network of volunteer doorknockers, telephone bankers and envelope stickers he needs to get out his vote on election day.

President Obama’s campaign may not have the near messianic magic it had to build its movement in 2008, but still seems well-placed to outmobilise a fairly uninspiring and successful-by-default Republican candidate. That is not enough to secure victory over someone who remains a formidable opponent, but it certainly helps.