The PJ Tatler

Five Things We Learned from Iowa

1. Negative campaigning works. Let’s see if we can spot a pattern here. Rick Perry rose up to take a lead over Mitt Romney, only to get smeared by a nasty piece of Washington Post work about a rock in West Texas. Herman Cain rose up to take a lead over Mitt Romney, only to get pasted with accusations of sexual misconduct. Newt Gingrich rose up to take a lead over Mitt Romney, but got hammered after the world learned about his work as a “historian” for Freddie Mac. And in Iowa, Romney-allied super PACs pounded Gingrich with millions of dollars of negative ads, pushing him into a poll free fall from which he did not recover in time to do well in Iowa. Meanwhile, candidates who until very recently never posed a threat to Romney never got much scrutiny. There’s no Scooby Doo mystery here. Romney’s core team are veterans of national campaigns and experienced at Beltway knife fights. Negative campaigning works, and the most effective negative campaigning is the kind that leaves no fingerprints. Let’s hope they intend to be even more aggressive against Obama than they have been so far in the primary. The media won’t help them out the way it has in going after Republicans.

2. The rules of campaigning have changed. In the past you needed money, manpower and message to compete, prety much in equal terms. Without all of those three you weren’t a serious candidate. That began to change with Mike Huckabee’s Iowa win in 2008, and the change has been completed now. Message is now magnified, money is secondary and manpower is in third. The 13 debates plus YouTube and social media plus the multi-layered 24/7 news cycle have all ripped up the old rules. You still have to have a ground game, you still have to raise money and you still have to have a message, but you also have to account for the new reality. It’s easier for candidates to forage off earned media and go viral, obtaining coverage across the networks and blogs and social media that would cost millions of dollars if you had to buy it. This may mean that the mainstream media is actually more powerful than it was in years past, despite the fact that its overall reputation has declined.

3. We’re pretty shallow after all. All the governor’s horses and all the governor’s men could not put things back together again, once Gov. Perry uttered the “heartless” remark. We’re petty and shallow when it comes to politics. We want someone who looks good, speaks smoothly and woos our psyches. Or, we want to be able to tell ourselves that we have become a part of something revolutionary. This isn’t really new, people have always sought after the shiny new thing, but it is magnified now in the age of incessant image bombardment and status. Candidates’ actual records in office mean a whole lot less than how a candidate makes us feel. Advantage: Obama.

4. Iowa’s worshiped “undecideds” are probably just low information voters. Take a look at the piece I wrote on undecideds yesterday. During our conversation one of the two men, Scott, ripped the Tea Party for refusing to negotiate with Obama. He also criticized Obama for failing to lead, but didn’t make the connection that it’s Obama’s leadership style and his conscious tactics that lead to things like the near-miss government shutdown and now, the recess appointment of Richard Cordray to the government’s new consumer protection racket. Obama is provoking the right to give himself something to run against, to create a media narrative that casts him as the reasonable adult. Scott struck me as very intelligent but not that well informed, knowledgeable enough based on mainstream media reports, but that knowledge is only about an inch deep.

Iowa chose Obama in 2008, with undecideds breaking for him late. How’s that working out?

5. About 75% of the Republican Party still doesn’t want to nominate Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has pieced together a formidable machine capable of tearing down any candidate in his way. He has been running for president since the day after his last bid ended. But he still cannot muscle his way to better than 25% of the vote in the first caucus. He almost lost to a former senator whose last race ended in a pounding defeat. Romney’s weakness is also Gingrich’s weakness: Neither seem to be reliable men of their word. Rick Santorum is that, and that’s one reason he caught fire over the past few days. Rick Perry is that too, and now that he is staying in, he has a chance to make his case anew in South Carolina. But see point 3 and adjust tactics and messaging accordingly.

And with that, I’m not going to quote Davy Crockett, but I am going to Texas.

Also see: “Romney Still Riding High on Intrade”