Yesterday, Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses by the narrowest of margins—just eight votes. Despite outspending all of his rivals but Rick Perry (and outspending Santorum almost eight to one) last night, Romney scored only a few hundred more votes than he did four years ago. About 25% of Iowans voted for Romney then; about 25% voted for him now.
Which means 75% of Iowans wouldn’t vote for the Republican frontrunner, who had hoped to emerge from the Iowa caucuses the decisive victor. But don’t blame anti-Mormonism. This was no 2008, when Mike Huckabee dropped sinister-sounding remarks about Mormon theology and traded knowing looks with like-minded evangelical Christians, during a contest Mormons far beyond Iowa experienced as a stinging humiliation.
No, the problem this time is not that Romney is religious. It may be that he lacks the kind of fervor that connects with faith-motivated voters.
That’s what struck me last night as I listened to supporters of Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann take turns at the caucus microphones (thank you, C-SPAN). The language Paul supporters used and the intensity they mustered mirrored that of evangelicals, even though their core concerns differed. They too insisted on the importance of Iowa “sending a message” about imminent danger facing the United States—in this version of the narrative, monetary policy and the budget deficit, not abortion and same-sex marriage.
It put me in mind of a phrase from the great British historian E. P. Thompson, who observed the volatility of religiously-inclined British workers. “The chiliasm of despair,” Thompson called it: “Something like an oscillation, with religious revivalism at the negative and radical politics at the positive pole.”
All the same vibe.
It’s a vibe that the technocratic, pragmatic, wonky, worksy Romney lacks. A fact underscored last night by the formulaic close of his victory speech, when he once again recited and then mused aloud on lines from the national anthem, like a schoolboy.
It’s not that Mormons don’t believe in the endtimes. It’s just that we address them differently: stay cool, smile, attend your meetings, keep good records, and store a year’s supply of food, just in case. Technocratic, pragmatic, wonky, and worksy.
And that’s how Romney is going to make his way to the nomination, with or without the religious enthusiasm of the GOP base.
Romney supporters, take heart: anti-Mormonism didn’t win in Iowa last night.
But candidate Romney didn’t score a knock-out punch either.