Rickrolled: Three Lessons from Iowa

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 4 2012 1:58 AM

Rickrolled: Three Lessons from Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa -- I like it when the media gets proven wrong. No, hold on -- I live for the media being proven wrong. It makes perfect sense that Rick Santorum, one of the best political advocates for the evangelical right, has played so well in Iowa.

Now, what else have we learned so we don't underestimate any more candidates? Check the exit polls.

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Lesson One: The Tea Party isn't a small government-first movement. It was Sarah Posner who coined the term "Teavangelicals," a little neologism for a simple idea. The Tea Party, she argued, was not some new force of libertarians. It was a new framework for the same conservatives who dominated the GOP a month before the Tea Party began. Iowa may not have been the best place to test this, as its Republicans have always been more economically populist than not, and in the last decades they've been reliable social conservatives. But its Tea Partiers did not demand much economic libertarianism from their GOP. Sixty-four percent of caucus-goers called themselves "Tea Party supporters," and 30 percent of them backed Rick Santorum -- a social conservative who proudly defended his earmarks. Rick Perry, who campaigned desparately on the issues Tea Partiers say they care about -- no earmarks! Term limits! Part time Congress! -- got 14 percent of this vote. Michele Bachmann got 9 percent of it.

Lesson Two: Money is speech, which means people can ignore it. Michael Li was the first to calculate how much the candidates spent for every vote. Santorum spent $1.65 per vote. Rick Perry spent $817. Santorum spent it better, buying radio ads for months, then counting on a Super PAC to introduce him in the final weeks. Perry went into details about issues he thought voters cared -- those pesky gay soldiers! -- and Santorum kept it calm and generic.

Lesson Three: Republicans aren't so excited about 2012. Four years ago, a depressed GOP went to the precinct caucuses, very well aware that Democrats had all the energy. The total GOP vote: 119,188. This year, Republicans should be psyched about the chance to uproot Barack Obama. There will be something above 122,000 total votes. An improvement, right? Well... in 2008, 86 percent of the people who chose the GOP caucuses were Republicans. This year, 75 percent of the electorate was Republican, with the rest of the vote coming from independents and Democrats. What the hell happened?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.