It's rather pathetic to see Mitt Romney claim victory after winning just eight more votes in Iowa than Rick Santorum did last night. Fourth-place finisher Newt Gingrich seems more justified when he observes that three-quarters of caucus participants repudiated Romney by choosing another candidate. What has Romney won, after all? For all that modern news media make Iowa an instant judgment on candidates' viability, the caucuses are a very old-fashioned process that only begins the selection of Iowa's delegates to the national convention. Iowa is a survival of the process that direct primaries were designed to replace more than a century ago. The caucuses, however, are perceived to be more democratic now, even among Republicans, because it's no longer presumed that local party bosses are dictating the preferences of the caucusers. In any event, they give Romney no objective reason to rejoice, nor did they really give Rep. Bachmann any objective reason to quit the race, as she has done this morning. Her decision amounts to a concession that her hoped-for constituency of evangelicals has abandoned her for Santorum. It also reflects the media consensus that makes Iowa a decisive test of "retail politics" even as the caucuses do nothing to prove any candidate truly presidential.
The rest of the crew carries on, though Gov. Perry seems to be wobbling after his invincibility was crushingly refuted last night. There may already be impatience among the media to reduce the race to Romney vs. Santorum. It's a storyline hostile observers probably relish: the religious exotic against the religious extremist, the corporate man against the lately-minted heartland populist. It's the storyline reporters hoped for four years ago, when it would have been Romney vs. Huckabee but for the now-mysterious rise of Sen. McCain, who has just endorsed Romney, a man for whom McCain expressed virtually unveiled contempt in 2008. Santorum actually welcomes McCain's decision as a clarifying moment absent from the last campaign, since now the two most prominent "moderates" are on the same side. Santorum would probably like things clarified further by Gingrich's exit, but the former Speaker has no real reason to quit just yet, and may prove stronger in New Hampshire, a state where Santorum's style is probably less welcome. Meanwhile, Rep. Paul will probably get his 20% or so wherever he goes. That should tell him that his only real influence this year will be as a threat to bolt. His job should be to play chicken with the front-runners with an eye to the convention platform -- to make clear to the rest of the Republicans that they must accommodate him and his movement or suffer the consequences in November. I doubt whether he'd be deterred by the prospect of being blamed for President Obama's second term -- but some of his supporters might, including his own son. But he'll need to show that he can draw a consistent turnout that'll follow him out of the party if necessary. Iowa alone doesn't prove that, but as I said, Iowa proves nothing. It just gives us all something to write about.