The narrow victory of Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucus has prompted some interesting commentaries on the political makeup of the Republican party. What should be remembered, however, is that the rigid Tea Party ideology of congressional Republicans is increasingly divorced from the general public, among whom its support has plummeted. Moreover, the Occupy movement has changed the political landscape in America, creating an imaginary where banks and market coercion can be resisted.
Juan Cole characterizes the ideological strains within the Republicans like this: “The Republican Party is a coalition of numerous groups, but the big three as things now stand are the wealthy 1%, the religious absolutists, and the suburban and prairie libertarians. The Iowa caucus split between candidates representing each of the three. Romney is the darling of Wall Street among the colorful Republican field. Rick Santorum has emerged as the voice of religious absolutists, mostly evangelical Protestants but including Ultramontane Catholics like himself. (He beat out Michelle Bachmann for this honor in part because religious absolutists are patriarchal and wouldn’t want to be led by a woman.) And Ron Paul is the standard bearer of the libertarians.”
What stands out is that the overwhelmingly white and older Iowa Republicans who in 2010 would have been the Tea Party’s natural constituency chose the candidate it least liked, and the candidates most closely aligned with Tea Party views – Bachmann, Perry, and Gingrich – were rejected. Ultra-conservatives like Santorum are traditionally favored by small businesspeople over Romney’s Wall Street orientation.
E.J. Dionne paid close attention to the voting. He agrees with Cole that the different constituencies within the party are personified by the three main candidates: “the split in the Republican Party is no longer between conservatives and moderates, but between members of the party who are very conservative and those who are only somewhat conservative. The days of Rockefeller Republicans are long gone. … Romney’s constituency is Republican Classic. He was the candidate of the ‘somewhat conservatives’ and did well with the moderates, particularly moderate Republicans. … Romney trailed badly with very conservative voters, running well behind Santorum in that group. … Ron Paul’s vote was something altogether different. He won overwhelmingly among the young, and brought young voters into the caucuses. … His vast improvement over his 2008 showing — he appears to have doubled his vote — was built in large part on the votes of non-Republicans, or at least of voters who hadn’t thought of themselves as Republicans before.”
Ron Paul’s vote is interesting because his idiosyncratic libertarianism makes him the only candidate for either party to oppose U.S. wars internationally and the extension of police state and executive powers domestically. Alexander Cockburn speculates that part of his vote “was undoubtedly leftists who, under Iowa’s rules, could cross over and vote in the Republican caucus.” However, it could also reflect public resentment of plutocratic control of political life in the U.S.