The final sprint to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses has candidates storming the state, and Newt Gingrich trying mightily to hold onto the momentum he has built since the beginning of December.
An election such as the caucuses might seem to be fairly straightforward in the marathon toward the nomination. The winner gains momentum — perhaps the second-place finisher, too — and everyone else suffers. But it doesn’t necessarily play out that way.
For example, in the 2008 caucuses, Mike Huckabee won, with Mitt Romney finishing second; Fred Thompson, third; and John McCain, fourth. Thompson’s third-place finish allowed him to stay in the race, while McCain’s fourth didn’t prevent him from eventually getting the Republican nomination.
Thompson bypassed New Hampshire, focusing on South Carolina. Thompson scored 16 percent support there, splitting the conservative vote with Huckabee. That enabled McCain to win there, setting up another victory in Florida for the Arizona senator. McCain was on his way to the nomination, and Huckabee was looking up the whole way, finishing in third.
Polls show many Iowans remain undecided, and majorities are open to changing their minds before next week’s caucuses. The campaigns want to win over these uncommitted voters, while identifying precinct captains to wrangle supporters to the 1,774 Republican caucuses that will take place across the state.
The most recent Iowa poll, which the American Research Group conducted Dec. 19-22, shows Gingrich, Romney, and Ron Paul statistically tied for the lead. Paul had 21 percent support among likely caucus attendees, compared with 20 percent for Romney and 19 percent for Gingrich. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Rick Perry took fourth with 9 percent, followed by Michele Bachmann with 8 percent and Rick Santorum with 4 percent.
Here’s how Politico
views the outlook for each of the major GOP candidates.
It’s been a real roller-coaster ride for the former House speaker. Several months ago, he barely registered on the radar for Iowa voters. But Gingrich caught fire at the beginning of December and jumped to a commanding lead in Iowa polls.
That raised expectations for him. So he’s taken some heat, as he’s returned to about equal with Romney and Paul in the polls. But Gingrich has been smart enough to lower the bar for himself in Iowa to avoid losing momentum there. In recent days, he has said that all he wants for New Year’s is a top four finish in Iowa.
Still, if he doesn’t finish near the top, it will be a tough road ahead for Gingrich, as New Hampshire will be a more difficult state for conservatives than Iowa.
Romney’s second-place Iowa finish in 2008, coming after he devoted major resources there, was a huge blow from which he never recovered. But this time around, the Hawkeye State could make him instead of breaking him. After virtually ignoring the state for months, the former Massachusetts governor now is making a major push there, as the field looks wide open.
If Romney takes Iowa and follows that up in New Hampshire, where he’s way ahead in the polls, he will have accomplished something unprecedented for a Republican candidate in modern history.
If he can’t win in Iowa, Romney would hope for a Paul victory, rather than one of the mainstream candidates, such as Gingrich, who can actually win the nomination. Romney’s worst nightmare would be a decisive victory by Gingrich or one of the other conservatives. That would make it clear that the onetime presumed front-runner has a battle on his hands.
Some December polls showed the Texas congressman on top, so he comes in as the favorite. Paul’s campaign is well organized, and his grass-roots backers are committed.
But a poor showing wouldn’t hamper Paul as much as the other candidates, because he has the money machine and passionate supporters around the country to keep him in the race through the end.
A strong Paul showing in Iowa could make the race topsy-turvy. A victory could provide momentum for Paul in New Hampshire and Nevada, too. A big Paul win in Iowa would give him a better chance of amassing enough delegates to embarrass Romney or whoever else might turn into the front-runner as the campaign goes along.
A Paul victory also could boost a second-place finisher such as Gingrich or Rick Santorum. They could point to the fact that they hadn’t lost to an establishment Republican.
Unfortunately for the Texas governor, he already may have torpedoed his campaign with poor performances in the debates and intemperate remarks on the campaign trail. So far, Iowa voters just aren’t taking to him. He has put plenty of cash into a television advertising campaign in the state, but it’s not getting him traction.
Like Thompson four years ago, Perry may have to skip New Hampshire for a last stand in South Carolina. Without a strong result in Iowa, third or perhaps fourth, he may not even have the money to do that.
A key issue in Iowa is which of the conservatives will come out on top — Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, or Santorum. “The winner of that group can have a rationale for continuing,” a campaign official told Politico.
Santorum’s socially conservative views and commitment to traveling the state — he was the first candidate to visit all 99 counties — have endeared the former Pennsylvania senator to some voters. But he doesn’t have the charisma of Huckabee, and Bachmann and Perry are pushing hard for the social conservative vote, too. One thing Santorum does benefit from is low expectations, having made little impact in the polls.
If Santorum finishes in the top four, and Bachmann and Perry drop out after Iowa, he may be able to hang in for New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has indicated that he will consider it a victory if he finishes ahead of that duo in Iowa. Huckabee told Fox News that Santorum has a good chance to come in third or fourth.
The Minnesota congresswoman is bucking for the social conservative vote, just like Perry and Santorum. She’s pretty much out of money and hasn’t established herself on the ground in New Hampshire. So a victory over Perry and Santorum probably is necessary to keep Bachmann’s campaign going. She is “playing for respectability now,” one veteran Iowa operative told Politico.
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