The 2012 “invisible primary” is looking likely to end just how and where it began: with Republican ideologues anxiously looking to Iowa for signs of an electable “true conservative” alternative to Mitt Romney. Depending on whom you ask, they have found no such candidate, or have found too many of them. In either case, despite their fevered hopes the First-in-the-Nation Caucus is not likely to play its intended role as an all-important arbiter where ideological squishes are disciplined or destroyed and the faithful find their champion. Indeed, from the perspective of a conservative movement hoping to consolidate its control over the GOP once and for all and make 2012 the beginning of the end for the New Deal, Iowa has been a big failure. 

The sad spectacle of the FAMiLY Leader organization—whose board, after administering a controversial pledge document and then holding a candidate forum, could not reach agreement on an endorsement—is something of a microcosm of the Right’s failure to separate the sheep from the goats throughout the invisible primary. While FAMiLY Leader chieftains Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley eventually supplied “personal” endorsements for Rick Santorum, Vander Plaats has been subsequently begging Santorum supporters to contribute money to enable him to actually campaign for his candidate—a sign of the gesture’s probable futility. Given the fact that they are appealing to largely the same constituencies and are hardly flush with cash, neither Santorum nor Michele Bachmann seem very likely to win a big “ticket out of Iowa.” And Rick Perry, once the favorite of the Christian Right, is still holding onto an impressive war chest that will likely sustain him, but he’s got precious little else going for him other than the hope that he, rather than Gingrich, will survive through New Hampshire to make a late appeal to southerners. For his part, Newt has not been haunting the highways and byways of Iowa all that obsessively either; the big news for his campaign this week has been its opening of an all-volunteer headquarters in Sioux City, just his second outpost in the entire state.

Meanwhile, neither Mitt Romney nor Ron Paul seems likely to be influenced by the results in Iowa at all. While it’s true that Romney has moved decisively to the right in order to make himself minimally acceptable to today’s conservatives, he’s done so out of deference to the primary process as a whole—not the glare of publicity and pressure on the Iowa campaign trail, which he has largely ignored until very, very recently. Indeed, the main Romney footprint in the state has been via the nasty attack ads on Newt Gingrich launched by the “Restore the Future” super-PAC backing Romney. And while Ron Paul has done well in the target-rich Iowa environment of a low-turnout caucus (lots of home-schoolers and lots of eager college students), it’s not as though he’s doing much of anything he hasn’t been doing for many years. Moreover, it is certain that Paul’s campaign will continue right up until the convention no matter how he does in Iowa. 

So the caucuses themselves will probably only cull one candidate from the field, no more than the Iowa Straw Poll back in August that ended Tim Pawlenty’s campaign. As Jonathan Bernstein has recently explained, barring a real upset Iowa’s influence over the nominating contest may well be reduced to spin: Did this or that candidate beat expectations, or set the table for success down the road? That is not a meaningless role to play, but after absorbing so many months of candidate and media attention, it’s hardly ideal from the point of view of Iowa triumphalists who consider their strange contest the epitome of deliberative democracy. 

And for the high-riding right wing of the Republican Party—be they denoted as Tea Partiers, the Christian Right, or “constitutional conservatives”—it’s been a long and arguably pointless trip. Unable to use the unique leverage of Iowa to elevate Tim or Michele or Rick or Herman or Newt or the other Rick, they are now looking at genuinely long odds for denying the nomination to the man they do not want, Mitt Romney, who is more and more looking like the Richard Nixon of the early twenty-first century: the lowest common denominator of a political party in which leadership is in painfully short supply.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.