cross-posted from Dagblog
The obvious stories from the Iowa caucuses are that 1) Mitt Romney ended up tied with the long-long-long-shot Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul hot on their heels and 2) Romney still has exactly the same crappy vote totals he had four years ago. But there's an even more important story: the Republican turnout was pretty much exactly what it was four years ago, when the Republican electorate was depressed and demoralized. In fact, when you factor out the independents and caucus-night party-switchers, fewer Republicans showed up to vote last night than in 2008, when their enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb.
All the drama and mayhem of the GOP campaign didn't bring more people to the polls. And the closeness of the race isn't helping. When Clinton and Obama went neck-and-neck for months in 2008, it hurt a lot of feelings in the blogosphere but it ended up helping the party, not only because the winning candidate had to build a serious ground organization during the primaries, but because it brought a lot of people to the polls. But Clinton and Obama were in a tight race because they were two strong candidates, with passionate followers. It was like a Celtics-Lakers championship match. The 2012 Republican candidates are a bunch of folks who can't get to 30% against each other's weak opposition. That doesn't help anything.
The Republicans have been counting on an enthusiasm gap to beat Obama. But you don't enthusiasm-gap your opponent without any enthusiasm. Not only are the Republicans saddled with Romney's curiously damp anti-charisma and the off-putting antics of his rivals, but they're on the verge of running the most purely negative primary campaign in modern history. The main rationale for every contender's candidacy is that he's not one of the other guys. It's Not Romney vs. Not Romney vs. Admittedly Romney for the chance to run as Not Obama. No one's got a strong positive case to make. At least, no one's making it.
Two bonus factors will make the negativity worse. One is Newt Gingrich, who is one of the great spite-driven mudslingers of our day and who, wait for it, feels he has been hit too hard by Mitt Romney and wants revenge. That's a recipe for trouble right there. An even bigger factor is that this is the first primary to come after Citizens United opened the door for unlimited outside money, and that money is primarily going to come in carpet-bombing waves of attack ads. An unprecedented amount of money is about to be poured into knocking the Republican candidates down, in a scorched-earth, last-creep-standing electoral scenario. The winner gets the scorched earth, a bunch of voters who've had their enthusiasm relentlessly squeezed out of them, and the lead of a party that's never liked him. Welcome to the enthusiasm gap.