The late stages of the invisible primary would not be complete without reports of intrigue and skullduggery in Iowa, with campaigns forming tactical alliances against common enemies. We have one today from National Review’s Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson, who report that supporters of the last two caucus winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, are so bitter at being eclipsed by Ted Cruz that they are conspiring to block the Texan and instead elevate Marco Rubio. There’s only one problem with that scenario: Under Republican caucus procedures, there’s no way the disgruntled social conservatives can achieve their alleged goal without damaging their own candidates, who will probably drop out if they don’t do surprisingly well in Iowa.
The reason Democrats are usually featured in these Iowa intrigue stories is that their caucus procedures encourage tactical alliances via minimum thresholds for “viability” (i.e., the opportunity to elect state convention delegates, which is the only measurement of success), meaning that support can be loaned to favored candidates and denied to disfavored candidates on a precinct-by-precinct basis. Republicans, by contrast, have a simple candidate preference vote at their caucuses, so there’s no way for would-be tacticians to loan or borrow support without hurting their own candidate’s statewide tally.
That’s what makes the NR report suspect. Are Huck and Santorum zealots really so angry at Cruz that they’d screw over Huck and Santorum to help Rubio? That’s not at all clear. Yes, the campaigns of the two former caucus winners are going after Cruz hammer and tongs, trying to exploit Mike Allen’s pseudo-scoop about Cruz telling an audience in sinful New York that fighting same-sex marriage would not be a “top-three priority” (long story short: Cruz enclosed the issue in his top priority, defending the Constitution as he misunderstands it). But that’s because the Texan is obviously the primary obstacle to their survival in Iowa. Helping Rubio try to beat him by giving away any of their own meager support would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise.
The intrigue-within-the-intrigue is burnished by the fact that the only people on the record validating the part of the cabal involving surreptitious support for Rubio are (1) a 2012 Santorum supporter who’s now neutral, and (2) Craig Robinson, proprietor of influential web page the Iowa Republican, who’s not really a Christian right figure but who does for some reason seem to hate Ted Cruz. There is a quote from a Santorum campaign official saying that Rubio’s immigration record is "more honest" than Cruz’s, but that’s in the context of condemning both.
The bottom line is that what Alberta and Johnson are reporting appears to be either a Rubio campaign plant, or scuttlebutt from scattered folk in the Huckabee and Santorum camps who actually want their candidates to drop out sooner rather than later and are (disloyally) already making their plans for the future. In Iowa, the intrigue is often deeper than it first appears.