Most observers were predicting a tight race in the Iowa caucus, but few could have predicted the slimness of Mitt Romney’s lead. He edged Rick Santorum by just eight votes and narrowly led Ron Paul by just 3 percent of the vote.
Paul’s third-place finish perhaps wasn’t the result for which his campaign was hoping—he had surprising support in Iowa polls running up to the caucus—but his margin of loss was small enough that he’s still strongly in the race. I spoke with Mehmet Ekmekci, a political economist, about Paul’s prospects a few days ago and followed up with him on the outcome of the Iowa caucus. Ekmekci is particularly interested in divided electorates like Iowa’s and has developed a model to study them in depth.
“My model studies precisely such situations when the electorate is highly divided,” Ekmekci told me. “The vote difference between Romney and Santorum is just eight, and Paul is trailing with 3 percent. That’s really tight.”
“Now that some more noise is gone—Bachmann is out of the race—the real contenders are becoming more clear,” he continued. Other primaries may hold a surprise or two—say if Huntsman or Perry win or place well—but realistically, the field is down to Romney, Paul, and Santorum, Ekmekci said. Who comes out on top is a matter of endorsement, according to his research. “The nominee will be the one that gets the strongest endorsement from the establishment. So I would expect the candidates to tailor their speeches and platforms slightly to the Republican base.”
While Romney’s win may indicate that Republicans are willing to put aside their doubts about Romney to field an electable nominee, the degree of division in the vote leaves the door open to a nominee who is less palatable to the general public. “The candidate with the least chance of winning the general election may become the nominee, since the voters may divide their votes among the remaining two candidates,” Ekmekci said.
“In my view, Santorum has the least chance of winning a general election, but he has a significant chance of being the nominee. If either Paul or Romney gets to be the nominee, I think they will not be adversely affected in the general election from the tight primary race. Romney has proven to be a flexible politician and can tailor to the median voter, and Paul can attract new voters who are independents and even Democrats.”