As political theater, the Republican Party's Iowa caucuses came through: A photo finish with a mere 8 votes separating winner Mitt Romney from the runner-up, former Sen. Rick Santorum. Throw in a third-place for Rep. Ron Paul as well as a decent showing by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The rest of the field were poor also-rans with their viability at an end, Michele Bachmann being simply the first to recognize that reality.
But as for the predictive value of the nation's first presidential voting? Not much was decided Tuesday. Iowa may choose first, but the state's 100,000-plus caucus voters appear to have the same mixed feelings about the GOP choices as everyone else.
If you are Mr. Romney, this has got to be maddening. What does it take for the former Massachusetts governor to close the deal with conservatives? No doubt he'll produce a stronger showing in New Hampshire next week, but that will be discounted as his home turf. Perhaps South Carolina will seal the deal on Jan. 21, but probably not. There's always Florida 10 days later. Oh, well.
Mr. Santorum's recent rise to prominence in Iowa came as a bit of a surprise. He has neither the money nor organization of a Romney nor the cult-like following surrounding Mr. Paul nor the celebrity of a Gingrich. In a race that has seen its share of musical-chair polling, it was as if Mr. Santorum simply benefited from excellent timing — his candidacy largely ignored by competitors, he was the non-Romney of the moment.
We would leave it to the political junkies to sort through the peculiarities of the aftermath and predict the future for those remaining in the race. How the well-financed campaign of Rick Perry, governor of the nation's second most populous state, could crash and burn so badly as to draw support from just 10 percent of Iowa caucus voters should produce some entertaining analyses.
But how many Americans woke up on Wednesday thinking Mr. Santorum will now go on to face President Barack Obama this fall? Surely the most shocked by the results in Iowa must be the voters of Pennsylvania who kicked Mr. Santorum out of the U.S. Senate six years ago. Polls conducted over the past two months show him trailing both Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich for the GOP nomination in his own state. What does that say about him?
Setting aside the peculiarities of one Midwestern state — Iowa caucus voters are more extremist in their views and more focused on abortion and other social issues than most residents of that state (let alone most Americans) — the only result that really matters is that nearly 75 percent of voters preferred someone other than Mr. Romney.
It's hardly a leap to suggest that conservatives don't trust the man whose approach to health care in Massachusetts provided the blueprint for Mr. Obama's own health care reform and whose position on any number of right-wing litmus-test issues from climate change to abortion has evolved markedly over time. (Indeed, there is much we find admirable in Mr. Romney's record, if not in his eagerness to disavow it.) But could Republicans possibly win if they nominate someone else?
This discomfort with Mr. Romney could fade away as the last of the alternatives rise and fall (with seemingly only former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. or former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer III left on the list to be reexamined, attacked and then discarded). But whether he can ever truly be embraced with much enthusiasm by the tea party remains to be seen.
Certainly, this looks to be a volatile political year, and it's only early January. Mr. Obama's own standings in the polls have improved much in the last two months, but he, too, could plummet if the U.S. economy appears to worsen — or even remain stagnant. And who knows what unexpected development may yet emerge as a key issue in the race?
But for now, the most interesting story arc of the 2012 election is the continuing conflict between Mr. Romney and the true-believers of this party. Will it be ideological purity or pragmatism for Republicans? Revolution or realism? Electability or excitement?
For now, mark voters in 49 states as still largely undecided about the GOP nominee. Let the show go on.