The Iowa caucuses–still looking for Brand X?

Live-blogging the Iowa caucuses, where participants may or may not be still looking for Brand X.

12:58

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have now both given their ending speeches–34 votes out of 120K+ votes cast, separating them–and Santorum spoke more effectively. But he’s still calling the Affordable Care Act fascism. He just does it by speaking tenderly of his Italian grandfather, who left Italy under Mussolini.

Two words you don’t hear from Romney or Santorum on occasions like tonight: “insurance companies.”

Sometimes it is hard to understand these guys. How can they possibly think that having the insurance companies act as gatekeepers to health care, to medical attention, is a good idea?

12:01

One candidate made news in his final speech. Rick Perry is suspending his campaign, reassessing–to return to Texas rather than continuing to South Carolina. Perry has ended up with 10 percent of the vote, with 96 percent of votes in, in Iowa. Plenty of money for staying in the race, according to the conventional wisdom, but not a lot of point in doing so.

Looks as though Perry’s attacks on Mitt Romney had less effect than the returned fire.

With only 4 percent of votes yet to come in, Santorum leads Romney by something over 100 votes. The two are statistically tied at 25 percent each.

11:13

Finally, they (MSNBC) cut away to hear Ron Paul speak to supporters. If the cable channels had done that earlier, as often as they aired clips of other candidates speaking, Paul would probably have gotten better than his 21 percent. Speaking to ebullient volunteers, Paul presses some buttons that the Obama White House needs to be aware of. Not the gold standard. But Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex, yes. “It’s time to get out of Afghanistan,” yes. And most of all, that as Ron Paul remarked, his campaign is bringing into the GOP some ideas it desperately needed, most of all, “the conviction that freedom is popular.”

When was the last time you heard any Republican candidate for office say that? Who else in the GOP could have been capable of enunciating it?

10:49

With votes coming in and 88 percent of votes counted, it’s Santorum with a tiny lead tied with Romney at 25 percent each, Ron Paul with 21 percent. Bachmann loses a point for 5 percent, Rick Perry gains the point for 11 percent, quite close to Gingrich’s 13 percent, a constant for the night so far.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, and the question already shapes itself: What crusade can Newt Gingrich be invited to throw himself into? Can he be induced to spearhead a national drive for a constitutional amendment to throw money out of politics? And if so, who can be found to fund the position?

In short, WHAT’S THE JOB OFFER FOR GINGRICH?

10:16

News flash: NBC will not project the winner of the Iowa caucuses race. We’ll just have to wait and see who the winner is, when–get this–all the votes are counted. Unheard of.

Still effectively a three-way tie, with 45 percent of the vote in. But a gap is widening for now between Santorum-Romney and Ron Paul, who now has 22 percent to Santorum and Romney’s 24 percent apiece.

Update 9:13

With 13 percent counted, it’s Ron Paul 24 percent, Mitt Romney 24 percent, Rick Santorum 23 percent. Numbers Paul 3821, Romney 3650, Santorum 3636. The percentages have been steady among the top three so far, fluctuating only between 24 percent and 23 percent.

All this to choose delegates to attend the county conventions March 10.

Discussion on MSNBC centers mainly on how support will coalesce around Santorum as the anti-Romney candidate. One intriguing interruption: a hoax came in a little while after vote counting began, a bogus news flash that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is dropping his bid and endorsing Ron Paul instead. Hoax.

Discussion of Santorum’s chances, if any, has hinged so far on suggestion that Gingrich is now going to go after Mitt Romney and will damage him. Santorum himself earlier said that Romney and Gingrich were the contenders in the establishment primary, as opposed to the sui generis Ron Paul primary and the Christian-right primary featuring him, Bachmann and Perry.

Some theorizing is that the GOP nomination might hinge on how angry Gingrich is–whether he’s mad enough to destroy Romney out of revenge.

Maybe so. But it is hard to imagine a Gingrich so angry about campaign ads that he becomes numb to the appeal of money. Surely any effective, well funded behind-the-scenes team could make him forget some of his pain, offering him further well-paid consulting work to throw himself into.

Update 8:44

Second raft of numbers comes floating in–this time it’s Rick Santorum on top with 26 percent, Ron Paul second with 23 percent, Mitt Romney (still) third with 18 percent. Numbers: Santorum 463, Paul 406, Romney 318.

Hmm.

Update 8:32

First numbers actually in–a breathless one percent of caucuses reporting, and the breakdown is –drumroll here– 43 percent Ron Paul, 19 percent Rick Perry, 14 percent Mitt Romney. All that looks a bit less definitive when clarified with numbers: 9 for Paul, 4 for Perry, 3 for Romney.

Still, at least the commentators are finally, realistically, talking about Ron Paul. As commentators point out, Paul’s appeal for young voters–fiscally responsible, socially liberal, anti-war–is something the Obama team could study.

Update 7:30

A good, succinct run-down of the political situation coming out of the caucuses, by Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Also, Rachel Madow presiding, a surprisingly interesting discussion of campaign finance law with Romney attorney Ben Ginsberg. The Rev. Al Sharpton contributed good questions. He elicited the statement from Ginsberg that each candidate could address other candidates’ PACs, just not his own. To ask a supporting PAC to, for example, cease running a negative ad would be coordinating and thus in violation of campaign finance law after Citizens United, according to Ginsberg. Sharpton will have opportunities to follow up on this line of thought, in all probability.

Reminds me of 1950s law-shaped “Brand X” television advertising, see below. This issue needs further clarification, and will get it.

Meanwhile, one must admit that it is not entirely painful to watch Newt Gingrich hoist by his own petard–while claiming that he is damaged because he, he alone, tried to oppose negative advertising.

Signs of the times in Iowa

Some consensus has emerged among discussants on air that a Romney-Santorum-Paul finish is probable if not certain, also that since neither of the non-Romney ‘top’ finishers is Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, the exact order in which the top three finish is unimportant. Analysts have reminded each other ad infinitum that Romney-supporting ads have been directed against Perry and Gingrich, not against the others. So, Perry and Gingrich are the candidates perceived as having some national capability, as representing some sort of threat.

Q.E.D.

There is a parallel to all this in old anti-trust legislation, back in the earlier days of television. For at least a while, it was illegal for an advertiser to mention any competitor by name, in commercials. The result was that sponsors would tout their products against all others in some vague and sweeping language–“dentists recommend,” etc. Or they would claim that their product outperformed “Brand X.”

This struck a lot of the old comedians as a vein to be mined for humor.

Now, of course, advertisers can specifically mention (inferior) rival products by brand name. They’ve been able to do that for years. So can political ads, including those paid for by interest groups in support of a candidate, without the candidate’s official endorsement. It is beginning to look as though those previous anti-trust laws/regs, designed to prevent combining against a competitor, had a point.

Frustrating for every form of typical primary-season narrative that no Brand X has emerged yet in Iowa. The question topping almost all others, as caucus night heads toward some kind of result, is what t he primary line-up will look like, without one. The question as to how many voters will turn up to participate in the caucuses is almost secondary, if equally hard to answer with a prediction. (This writer has no guess as to how the caucuses will go.)

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum is saying this evening that he will be spending a lot of time in New Hampshire, apparently more than in South Carolina. Guess he figures his Catholicism will be a barrier in SC, more of one than in New England. Still seems an odd game plan, especially for someone so hyped at the moment who was born in Virginia.

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