After months of anticipation, the opening contest of the Republican presidential campaign is finally here. The Iowa caucuses begin at 8 p.m. Eastern time today, and the nation eagerly awaits the results.
The latest polls have Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum fighting it out for the top spot, with Newt Gingrich in fourth. The Iowa outcome can mean everything for a candidate’s fate — see Barack Obama in 2008 — or nothing — see John McCain in 2008.
Turnout may play a key role in the caucus results. Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn predicted a high turnout Monday and said uncharacteristically large numbers of voters remain undecided.
“It is unusual, and that emphasizes the importance of organization, because it’s the organized campaign that’s going to have somebody in each precinct that’s probably a local leader making that close,” Strawn said at a Mitt Romney event in Clive, Iowa, The Hill reports.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum may benefit most from that scenario, as support for him is surging and he has one of the strongest campaign organizations in the state. Texas Rep. Paul also has a strong organization, and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has the resources to bring supporters to the polls.
Politico identifies 10 key counties, out of Iowa’s 99 in total, for you to watch while you’re parsing the caucus numbers.
1. Black Hawk County
The county skews Democratic. But it includes Waterloo, Michele Bachmann’s birthplace. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat Romney here in 2008, 35 percent to 27 percent.
2. Dallas County
This includes suburbs of Des Moines. Romney earned a four-vote victory over Huckabee in 2008, making Dallas the only county in the Des Moines metropolitan area to choose Romney over Huckabee. Turnout is generally very high.
3. Dubuque County
Romney scored a strong victory in this northeastern area in 2008. It was the only county in which Huckabee failed to place first or second. It’s the most Catholic part of the state, which may aid Santorum and former House Speaker Gingrich.
4. Johnson County
This county is liberal, including Iowa City and the University of Iowa. But it’s still important, because it has a large Republican population. Romney won in 2008 and may well do so again. But Paul may pose a strong threat.
5. Linn County
The eastern county includes Cedar Rapids, the state’s second-largest city after Des Moines. Both moderates and social conservatives constitute a major presence. Romney topped Huckabee here in 2008, 31 percent to 26 percent.
6. Polk County
Polk is by far Iowa’s most populous county, and it includes the state capital of Des Moines. The past four GOP caucus winners emerged victorious here. About 20 percent of all the state’s ballots were cast here in 2008, with the results nearly matching those of the full state.
7. Pottawattamie County
This western area includes Council Bluffs and has a large Mormon population that could help Romney. He carried the county handily in 2008. Turnout has been low in recent caucuses.
8. Scott County
It’s home to the state’s third-biggest city, Davenport, and Republicans did very well here in 2010, reversing their recent fortunes. Romney beat Huckabee 31-23 percent in 2008, and he’ll need another victory to win statewide.
9. Sioux County
Christian conservatives make up a substantial part of the population in this heavily Republican northwestern county. Huckabee dominated here in 2008 with 52 percent support, while Romney trailed badly in third.
10. Woodbury County
This western county skews Republican, but it has gone for the loser in the last three caucus elections: Pat Buchanan in 1996, Steve Forbes in 2000, and Romney in 2008.
Romney must do well in eastern Iowa, where moderates live in heavy numbers, according to Politico. Conservatives dominate in the northwest, so Santorum could benefit from a strong showing there. College towns such as Ames are important for Paul.
One important issue is how high Romney’s support goes, Politico reports. For months, he virtually ignored Iowa but now has a chance to win it. His improved fortunes in Iowa raise the bar for him. Anything worse than a close second-place finish will mark a clear setback for Romney. And if he’s unable to break through the mid-20s, which has been a ceiling for him in polls around the nation, questions about Romney’s candidacy will remain.
The gap between the three top finishers also matters, according to Politico. A strong Paul showing might boost his standing and derail the Romney express. The spread between the top three and the rest also is significant. If Minnesota Rep. Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry finish far behind the top three, their candidacies may struggle to continue. On the other hand, a stronger-than-expected fourth-place finish could help them, and it could help Gingrich as well.
In case you’ve forgotten just how topsy-turvy this race has been, here are a few numbers Politico put together concerning polls conducted in Iowa during the campaign season.
- Seven: The number of times the front-runner in Iowa has changed since May, according to Gallup polls.
- One percentage point: Romney’s lead over second-place Santorum in the final day of polling during The Des Moines Register’s four-day survey. In the overall four-day results, Paul took first, followed by Romney and then Santorum.
- 20 percent: Paul’s first-place total in the latest Public Policy Polling poll of Iowa voters, published Jan. 1.
- 19 percent: Romney’s second-place total in the same poll.
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