To understand the Republican Presidential race, grasp first that the party is one of ideas. One is born into the Democratic Party. If you are black or Latino or poor or gay or become a single mother, your partisan identity is often spoken for. But you become a member of the Republican Party by agreeing with certain ideas. So there are several distinct groupings within the Republican Party merged together by shared ideals but with sharply different priorities and perspectives. Imagine that each sector of the party is like a division in the NFL or in Major League Baseball, with its own separate playoffs or pennant race and its own separate champion. Then, the winners of the divisions meet in the primaries. We are still in the pre-runoff phase.
Start with the Economic Conservative Division. These folks are deeply committed to free market economics. Often from big companies and corporations, they tend to be well off and to believe in capitalism and oppose redistribution of wealth. In their division, the candidates were Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Tim Pawlenty, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels. Mitt is the only one left. He is the champ of that division which guarantees him a berth in the runoffs.
Closely allied to them is the Establishment Republican Division. This was the group that rallied to Bush-43 and impelled him to the nomination. They have to choose between Romney, Perry, and Gingrich. They can’t back Cain or Bachmann because both are too much outsiders. Perry has disappointed them so they are going largely for Mitt. But some will probably end up for Newt.
Then go to the Evangelical Division. They are motivated by religious and social issues like abortion, gay marriage and such. The candidates were Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry. Huck didn’t run. First Bachmann surged, then Perry and then Cain. But Cain fell back because of the sex harassment charges. This block can’t support Romney (although they will if he is nominated) because he is Mormon and flip flopped on abortion. They are reluctant to back Gingrich because of his personal issues. So they must choose among Perry, Cain, Bachmann, and Santorum. They haven’t chosen yet. But they will. One of these candidates has to be in the runoffs because this group has to have a candidate.
Then we go to the national security people. They are focused on defense, support the war in Afghanistan and back tough protections against terrorism. Their possible candidates are Gingrich, Bachmann, Perry, Romney, or Santorum. They won’t back Cain because of his inexperience and they disagree with Paul and Huntsman. Gingrich’s strong debate performance turned them on, but Romney is making a strong play for their votes. Santorum could gain traction, but likely not. Perry wants their votes, but he hurt himself by his lack of familiarity with the issues. They will probably split between Newt and Mitt. Between their votes and those of the party establishment Newt can pick up, it virtually assures Gingrich of a runoff birth.
Then there are the Tea Party folks. They focus on the federal deficit, the national debt, reining in spending, holding down taxes, opposing Obamacare, and reducing government regulation. They had, initially, to choose among Daniels, Christie, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, Cain, and Bachmann. They won’t support Romney because of Romneycare in Massachusetts (although they would if he is the nominee). With Christie and Daniels out, they first went Bachmann because of her battle in Congress to cut spending. Then they were seduced by Perry but his immigration position turned them off so they went for Cain. Now they are worried about Cain and are looking at Gingrich or Bachmann or maybe still Cain.
So that’s the state of play. Romney has an assured runoff berth but nobody else does. If Newt doesn’t stumble over his consulting practice or personal issues, he will likely make the runoff as the National Security candidate with good support from the Party Establishment and Tea Party Divisions.
But that would still leave the Evangelicals out there. They can’t back Romney due to his religion or Newt because of his personal issues. So they will back someone else – Cain, Perry, Bachmann, or Santorum. And a lot of Tea Party people – who overlap with the Evangelicals – will also be looking at these candidates. One of these four is going to be in the final mix.
Then it will likely be a three way fight: Romney, Gingrich, and an Evangelical/Tea Party candidate to be named later.
This is the context of the Iowa caucuses. It is first and foremost a way to sort out the Evangelical/Tea Party conundrum and come up with their candidate. That’s what January 3rd will be all about.