The Iowa caucuses tonight will fundamentally reshape the narrative of the Republican primary, regardless of who wins or loses. Tonight’s outcome will have serious implications for all of the candidates, and for some, it will determine whether they can live to fight another day.
Heading into the caucuses tonight, Mitt Romney is regarded as the near inevitable Republican nominee and yet, if he were to win Iowa, it would be considered enormous news. Despite assembling a top notch staff, raising a large amount of money, and being the most consistent performer in the debates, Romney has been viewed as underdog in Iowa since the beginning of this campaign.
Having underachieved so badly in Iowa against Mike Huckabee in 2008, the expectations for Romney are much lower this time. His own campaign managed to temper those expectations even further throughout the fall, as Romney studiously avoided campaigning in Iowa. However, in the wake of Newt Gingrich’s Iowa collapse, Team Romney decided to re-engage in Iowa and make a push to win the caucuses. For Romney, tonight’s caucuses present a world of opportunity with very little downside. If Romney wins, the campaign will effectively be over. He will cruise to victory in New Hampshire, making him the first non-incumbent candidate to capture both states in the history of the modern primary system. That momentum will catapult him to the Republican nomination, even if he slips up in South Carolina on January 21st.
There is little downside to Romney finishing second or third either. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, the two men who could upend Romney in Iowa, are relatively weak challengers. It would be a longshot for either to contend for the nomination, despite some national columnists (see David Brooks) tooting Santorum’s horn in the past couple of days. Such observations ignore some essential facts. Santorum has visited all 99 counties in Iowa and has hosted nearly 400 campaign events in the state, while barely campaigning in New Hampshire or elsewhere. He has raised virtually no money, accrued almost no significant endorsements, and he consistently polls under 3% nationally. While I am aware that Iowa’s results can have a slingshot effect on a person’s candidacy, it would seem that Santorum has been running for the last year to be Governor of Iowa, not President of the United States. It is only in the last two weeks that Santorum has seen any increase in his poll numbers and the truth is that he has been more lucky than good. While I admire Rick Santorum’s persistence, we could just as easily be talking about a Rick Perry surge right now if Bob Vander Plaats and a couple of other prominent evangelicals had endorsed his candidacy.
Santorum’s popularity in Iowa right now is precisely because he was seen as such a non-factor throughout most of the race. He has not been attacked on the airwaves in Iowa and he has benefitted from the flameouts of Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann. If this surge had occurred two weeks earlier, Santorum would have likely been pounded on the airwaves and would have seen his favorability ratings slide significantly. His rise in the polls as has been almost perfectly timed. There has been no time to attack him or highlight troublesome aspects of his record. My prediction is that if Santorum wins Iowa, he will get a thorough shellacking at the hands of the other Republican contenders. His record in the US Senate was fairly consistent during his twelve years there, but he did lose by an astonishing 17% in his 2006 Senate race and more importantly his credentials as a fiscal conservative are very much in doubt.
Without further ado, here are my predictions for tonight:
1st Place – Ron Paul (23%)
Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum all have a strong chance of winning tonight. In fact, the race is so tight it is probably foolhardy of me to think I can predict the winner. Nonetheless, I am going to go with my gut and pick Congressman Paul as tonight’s winner. With the field as fractured as it is in Iowa, 25% is likely to be enough to secure a victory and I believe Ron Paul’s top notch organization and cadre of passionate supporters will at a minimum deliver him 20% of the vote. Many people are skeptical that Paul’s supporters, especially young people and Democrats, will turn out to caucus for him. I believe this skepticism is unwarranted for a couple of reasons. First, like Barack Obama’s supporters in 2008, Paul’s supporters are intensely passionate about his candidacy. They will show up at the caucuses just like Obama’s supporters. Secondly, it is very easy for independents and Democrats to attend a caucus site and participate in the voting. All they must do is arrive on time at the caucus location and re-register as a Republican.
What it Means: If Ron Paul does indeed win Iowa tonight, he will get a burst of momentum into New Hampshire, enough to push his vote total towards 25% and a second place finish, but not enough to dethrone Mitt Romney. Of course, the Republican establishment will also begin a blietkrieg style attack on his candidacy, pummeling him for his anti-war and “anti-Israel” positions. Unfortunately for his supporters, Paul will not be the GOP nominee.
2nd Place – Rick Santorum (21%)
The Santorum surge is real, but I believe he will come up just short in Iowa. Perry and Gingrich will be fighting for their lives to retain every possible caucus voter they can, keeping the conservative vote just splintered enough for Ron Paul (or possibly Mitt Romney) to win tonight. While some social conservatives have united behind Santorum, the voting bloc is still too splintered for Santorum to take off in the same way as Mike Huckabee in 2008. Additionally, while Santorum’s organization in Iowa is far from poor, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney all arguably have stronger caucus operations in place. Perry, for example, has bet all of his marbles on Iowa, spending millions on TV advertising and recruiting over 1,500 precinct leaders to speak at various caucus sites.
What it Means: A second place finish for Rick Santorum will give him invaluable press coverage in the coming days and give his fundraising a shot in the arm. It should elevate his poll numbers into the double digits in New Hampshire, but I don’t see him seriously challenging Romney there. He could make a real push in South Carolina, but it will be remain difficult for him to win there if both Gingrich and Perry stay in the race after Iowa.
3rd Place – Mitt Romney (20%)
Mitt Romney could steal 1st place tonight, but I think there is a soft ceiling on his support, which will make it tough for him to get the victory. Even so, third place is not a bad outcome for Romney. Especially, if it is a close third place finish, as I predict it will be.
What It Means: Romney’s chances of winning the nomination will exceed 90% after tonight. He will score a double digit victory in New Hampshire next week. South Carolina will be a tough state for him, but I don’t think conservatives will unite behind a single candidate, despite Rick Santorum’s hopeful protestations. While he probably won’t win South Carolina, he won’t be trounced there either (and that is victory in and of itself).
4th Place – Rick Perry (14%)
Back in August, the notion of Rick Perry finishing 4th in Iowa would have seemed absurd. But now, he is locked in a tough battle just to avoid a 5th place finish. Polling actually shows Newt Gingrich running ahead of Perry in Iowa, but Gingrich’s poor organization is sure to cost him a couple percentage points. Recent polling data (from PPP and others) shows that a significant number of probable caucus voters list Perry as their second choice. If he manages to pick off some of those voters tonight, he could possibly sneak into 3rd place.
What It Means: First and foremost, it means Perry can continue his campaign. His coffers will be heavily drained, but he will at least be able to tout finishing ahead of Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann. His campaign will bypass the New Hampshire primary and make a last stand in South Carolina. As a fellow Southerner, he may be able to rejuvenate his campaign there. I doubt it, however, since he and Gingrich will have a hard time separating themselves in South Carolina yet again. If Perry were to finish behind Gingrich, he would almost certainly have to drop out of the race.
5th Place – Newt Gingrich (13%)
Of all the candidates, Gingrich is the biggest wildcard tonight and moving forward. He has been absolutely pummeled in Iowa over the last month. Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney have all spent big money to paint him as a dishonest Washington insider with no core principles. The strategy has worked and as a result Gingrich’s favorability numbers have collapsed. He still has some residual support in Iowa, so it may be possible for Gingrich to surprise tonight, but a more likely scenario is for him to finish a distant 5th.
What it Means: Unlike Bachmann, Gingrich has managed to raise some money in recent weeks. His campaign claims it has brought in over $9 million in the 4th quarter, meaning he can fight on in South Carolina and Florida. The problem for Gingrich is that a 5th place finish in Iowa will damage him so badly that it is unlikely he can recover. He may still lead in South Carolina right now, but by week’s end that is unlikely to be the case. If Perry finished 5th in Iowa, he would probably drop out of the race. But Gingrich has too much pride and hates Mitt Romney too much right now to even consider that possibility.
6th Place – Michele Bachmann (6%)
Bachmann’s campaign has limped to the finish line in Iowa and tonight will be its death knell. Bachmann herself has brightly proclaimed that it is onto New Hampshire and South Carolina after tonight, but those are empty words. Her campaign has aired almost no TV ads in Iowa, meaning her operation is running on fumes. Ironically enough, her campaign probably ended up spending more to win the Iowa Straw Poll than to win the actual caucuses. Since she will almost certainly want to run for re-election to her Minnesota House seat in the fall, it will make sense for her to drop out of the race and return to her work on Capitol Hill.
What it Means: Bachmann will drop out of the race by the end of the week. Her departure is unlikely to benefit any of her rivals all that much considering her weak standing in the polls.
7th Place – Jon Huntsman (3%)
Huntsman has bypassed the Iowa caucuses and as a result he is certain to finish last among the seven candidates. The best he can hope for tonight is to see Mitt Romney underperform expectations, perhaps providing him an opening to move up in New Hampshire. Realistically, though, he needs either Gingrich or Perry to surprise and best Romney this evening.
What it Means: Time is running out for Huntsman. He has not gained significantly in the polls in New Hampshire and Romney’s standing there will be only be solidified by his performance tonight. I still believe Huntsman can add a few points to his New Hampshire numbers, but I doubt he climbs above 18-20% there. That will not be enough to get him back into the discussion.