So: January 4th, 2012. Another month, and another shake-up in the Republican race.
The results from Iowa - the first time anyone could actually vote - are in. And it's abundantly clear that... err, that....
No, darn it! Nothing's clear at all! Romney "won" Iowa. He won it by getting 24.6% of the vote; he won it by doing worse than in 2008, when he managed 25,2%. And he won it by a measly 8 votes. That's a third of Bachmann's 23 children, for Christ's sake.
And who came in second? Not Bachmann, of course. Or Gingrich, or even Ron Paul. It was, instead, Rick Santorum, the guy who's be polling at approximately 0,002% all year long. Santorum, the Winchester Weasel, suddenly became the mouse that squeaked the Grand Republican Squeak.
There's something rotten in the GOP, indeed, and my word, it has never been clearer than it is now.
Who won the Iowa caucus? Well, I suppose the answer would have to be Barack Obama.
So what now?
Well, conventional wisdom will tell you that Romney - for all his faults, for all his manifest unlikeability - will now go on and sew up the nomination pretty easily. And I suppose that might well be the case. Not because of Romney's strengths, mind, but simply because it's very difficult to see any meaningful challenge emerging from his sorry band of would-be usurpers.
That might be the case. Then again, it might not.
Consider: Romney's riding high in New Hampshire; he should win by a very comfortable majority. But a win by anything less that the current poll lead (the Real Clear Politics average puts that at a whopping 21%), might well be considered a loss.
And afterwards it's South Carolina. And after that, Florida. And currently Romney isn't leading in either of these states. Instead, it's Gingrich who's ahead (by 16% and 7% respectively). The pundits will tell you that all that will change, and that, as the primaries in those states loom larger into view, Romney will simply have too much money and be backed too fully by the GOP establishment to not score well in those states. But you only have to believe one thing to realise that might not be true. You only have to believe that the majority of Republican voters simply don't want him. And if you look at the Iowa caucus, there's ample reason to believe that that's true.
And all this, of course, is playing out against the backdrop of the Rules (the Rules of the Republican Party, to be precise). It's ironic, but these rules may well become a bit of a burden for the GOP.
Let me explain.
In 2008, the Republicans lost. McCain never really had a chance against Obama; the Presidential contest was, in effect, over before it began. The Republicans, as you might imagine, took some note of this, but for some reason known only to themselves, they decided to blame their defeat, not on the fallibility of George W. Bush or the lack of viability of McCain, but on the process of election. There'd been this great big battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they reasoned, so the answer's simple. If we change our rules and have our own great big battle, we'll win.
As a result, the Republicans changed their election rules. In particular, they changed Rule 15, which now reads (insofar as relevant):
(1) No primary, caucus, or convention to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to the national convention shall occur prior to the first Tuesday in March in the year in which a national convention is held. Except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may begin their processes at any time on or after February 1 in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph (b)(2) of this rule.
(2) Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention which occurs prior to the first day of April in the year in which the national convention is held, shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.
What this means is, firstly, that any state that holds a caucus or a primary prior to February 1st 2012 be will penalised. The penalty is simple: such a state will have it's delegate count halved. Yes, that's right: all the results from New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida will all effectively be halved. (Rather weirdly, Iowa is exempt, the reason being that it doesn't actually allocate delegates on the basis of its caucus; that allocation comes later on).
Secondly, it means that any primary or caucus held before April 1 2012 will have to be, at least to some degree, proportional. That is: the results of such a caucus or primary will have to be weighed proportionally to the votes being cast, and the delegates allocated will have to be split according to that vote. It's not longer a winner-takes-all system. In the case of Iowa, for example, the results would mean that Romney takes 13 delegates out of the state, whilst Santorum takes 12.
The two changes together, mean, simply put, that it has become much harder to sweep through the first few contests and win the whole caboodle in one fell swoop. As long as there are candidates that have enough money and sufficient organisation to keep going, the process will drag on.
So what will the effect of these new rules be? At first glance, they would not seem to hinder a Romney bid. If anything, the Whirr/Click Mechanism is well oiled; organisation is not going to be a problem. As for wealth, well, anyone care to bet $ 10,000?
But look a little closer, and the problem for Romney becomes clear. Romney won Iowa, but only by a third of Bachmann's children. He did worse there than four years ago. Republicans just don't want him. As long as the rest of the field is fragmented, he's fine: he may well be the 25% guy, but that might well be enough to get him the nomination. But, as the process drags on, the field is going to be whittled down. The first casualty is already known: it's Michele Bachmann. The next to go may well be Ron Paul (who might sail off for a Libertarian bid), or Huntsman. And even as that happens, the not-Romney vote will start to coalesce; it will start to gather like a pall around the remaining competitors (say, Newt Gingrich or Perry). And it is quite possible that, if this happens, 25% will seem very paltry indeed.
And so, in the wake of the Iowa results, nothing is clear at all. Romney should win, there's no doubting that. And he will, but only as long as the competition against him remains fractured. The moment it solidifies around a single candidate - the ultimate Not-Romney - he's in trouble.
The question, therefore, isn't really how well Romney does. It's how well (or how badly) the other guys do. It's whether or not there's anyone amongst them who can rise above the field and take Romney on.
In the end, I doubt that will happen. But who knows? Those pesky, dastardly voters might decide otherwise and blow the whole thing up.
I mean really, will people never learn?