Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America" (PublicAffairs).
(CNN) -- In the 2008 Republican Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney received 30,021 votes, 25% of the total, good for second place against a socially conservative evangelical (Mike Huckabee), who within seven weeks would become enough of a nonfactor in the presidential race that he appeared on "Saturday Night Live" mocking his own electability.
In the 2012 caucuses, after four more years of introducing himself to a recession- and Washington-weary America, Romney received 30,015 votes, 25% of the total, good for a razor-thin, eight-vote win over a socially conservative Catholic (Rick Santorum), who has a comparatively weak national campaign organization outside the early-primary states.
Yet Iowa arguably derailed Romney in 2008 while shoring up his front-runner status this time around. GOP politics have become so fluid, so unpredictable, so bizarre, that the main point of the game is more about survival than winning.
The biggest losers Tuesday night (besides America) were the ones already on the sidelines: one-time polling front-runners Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Huckabee and Donald Trump, former "top-tier" candidate Tim Pawlenty and former gleams-in-Republicans'-eyes Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan. Any minute now, we can add to that long list Rick Perry, who is reassessing his campaign, and Michele Bachmann, who appears on the verge of dropping out.
Why is the GOP contest so topsy-turvy? Because, behind their false unity in opposition to the Obama administration, Republicans are fighting bitterly with one another over what kind of party it is going to be in the 21st century, at a time when disgusted voters are leaving both major political parties in droves.
Should government be used to shore up public morality by legislating private consensual behavior? Though Americans are moving away from that notion, social conservatives are not, which provides an opening for Santorum.
Or does the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan stare into the face of record federal spending, deficits and debt, and conclude the public's increasing opposition to big government might suggest a principled small-government candidate? If so, there's Ron Paul.
These are the three main selling propositions against Romney, whose prime attraction seems to be salability. According to exit polls, among the one-third of Iowa voters whose primary criteria was electability, the former Massachusetts governor stomped all comers with 48% of the vote (compared with Gingrich's 20%, Santorum's 13% and Paul's 9%). Romney also got the highest vote among the one-third of voters who said they had "reservations" about their candidate.
Romney, unlike his competition, has been consistently around 25%-30% in the polls. He doesn't excite anybody, doesn't color outside the lines and doesn't put the fear of God into most people imagining his finger near the button. He's the most presentable of the bunch, the guy you introduce to your parents, the management consultant who can repackage conventional Republicanism (Ronald Reagan! Private enterprise! No illegals! No nukes for Iran! No apologies!) into a sufficiently palatable mush.
This may be enough to help Romney survive against three competitors who are more excitable. But it also sets up one whale of a paradox: After 39 months of consistent public hostility to bailout economics, after the rise of the tea party movement, after town-hall opposition to "Obama care," after the long-shot Scott Brown win in Massachusetts, after the 2010 limited-government resurgence in the House of Representatives ... after all of these unmistakable signs of public -- let alone Republican -- sentiment, the alleged party of limited government may be on the verge of nominating someone who is running to President Barack Obama's left on Medicare, who helped pave the way for the Obama policy Republicans hate most and who has no real plan for cutting the biggest growth items in the federal budget.
That's why you can't count out the competition just yet. Paul may have disappointed supporters with his third-place finish Tuesday, but he more than doubled his vote over 2008, while Romney stood still. If the last four years has taught us anything, it's that politics is even weirder -- and more unpredictable -- than it looks.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.