The Iowa primary race is a watershed moment for the GOP presidential race. Right now the possible paths, even knowing the likely outcomes of the Iowa caucuses are too numerous to contemplate. But if we winnow it down to a number of possible first stage results, some of the likely consequences and next steps can be extrapolated.
The likely outcomes of Iowa based on polling are possible to narrow down. The polling could result in a number of different Iowa winners, despite the decidedly large number of undecided Iowans. To simplify, let’s narrow the field into two buckets – Top 4 finishers, and Also-rans. Perhaps a bit harsh, but this is politics, so there’s no need to couch the wording in niceties.
The Top 4 and the Also-rans.
Despite the fluidity of the race, the polling suggests the top four finishers will be, in no particular order, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. That leaves Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann as the noteworthy also-rans. Both Perry and Bachmann are dark horses for that forth spot in the Top 4, but for simplicity sake, let’s assume that things go as expected. The irony is that in the early stages, the Also-rans can have a dramatic impact on how the race shapes up. That is because the candidates can choose to remain in the race or they can drop out and allow the not-Romney votes to coalesce around fewer candidates and ensure the nomination is not a cake-walk for Mitt Romney.
As an aside, I was wondering last night if the GOP establishment hadn’t already done something similar behind the scenes in support of Mitt Romney. The expected high profile candidates have all declined to participate – Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Hayley Barbour, Chris Christie and Sarah Palin all chose not to enter. The same is true for Bobby Jindal. Given the mood of the 2010 elections they couldn’t have possibly opted out due to fear of president Obama’s invulnerability in 2012. He’s completely beatable. So why drop out? The historic Republican trend has been to nominate whoever was the next in line – from Reagan to Bush (senior), to Bob Dole, to John McCain that’s roughly been the trend. The exception was Bush 43. Under that operational model, the next candidate would be either Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney. So everybody who posed a seemingly credible challenge to Romney opted out after Mike Huckabee. Was the path cleared for Romney by the establishment?
Back to Iowa and the Also-ran bucket from that state. The reason they are so important is that with a few candidates having a combined support level of over 14% of the Republican polling nationally, throwing their support behind candidates has the potential to swing the race dramatically among the front-runners. That isn’t a certainty, but does represent a distinct possibility.
What will those lower-finishing candidates do? For Jon Huntsman to drop out before New Hampshire would be silly. He’s not expected to do well in Iowa and he can perform to expectations there. He’ll remain in the race until at least New Hampshire, where he has a chance of coming in second (he currently trails only Romney and Paul). So from the perspective Huntsman, there will be no immediate impact. That said, Palin has called for him to drop out of the race.
I will deal with the Palin wild card later on, but the longer Huntsman stays in the race, the better it is for any Not Romney candidate as Huntsman’s obvious target audience is the closer to Romney’s than anyone else’s. Which leads to another aside – is Palin angling to be the VP pick of Romney? After all, she’s already ran with a less-than-conservative nominee. The fact that Gingrich said he’d consider her as a VP candidate may not factor into her plans. Of course Palin has also called for Bachmann to bow out. There’s been speculation that her going after Gingrich and Perry means she’s also angling for the VP nod with Romney, although it could very well just be her fighting for the same demographics as Gingrich, Perry and now Santorum.
As for Huntsman, his true Also-ran status will be determined after New Hampshire, not Iowa. Don’t expect anything other than low key out of Huntsman as a result of the Iowa caucuses, but expect him to ramp up going into New Hampshire next week. Beyond New Hampshire, I can’t see Huntsman lasting very long. He trails the polls in most of the early states that have had significant polling. His positive media image has hurt him. With prominent liberals and Democrats calling him the adult in the room, he looks less and less appealing to Republican voters. He has no shot at winning, but the longer he stays in the race, the more delegates he can pull away from Mitt Romney. Even those however will be a small number.
Rick Perry could end up as high as fourth in Iowa. He has a funding base that is lacking for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. It was widely expected early on that he would be the one candidate who could compete with Mitt Romney on a campaign funding basis. His ground game and state operatives are much better suited to the nomination fight than probably anyone but Mitt Romney. But sagging in the polls and no real uptick of significance since his dreadful debate brain freeze, the question Romney has to answer for himself is whether he thinks a comeback is in the cards for him. More importantly, if he believes he has a shot, how long does he think it will take before his chances get cemented as a realistic possibility?
Looking at the calendar, Perry should be able to count on Texas as a big win, and the state has a lot of delegates it could throw his way (Texas totals 155 delegates of 1144 needed to win). The problem is that it’s not until April 3rd. That’s a long three months from now, and by that time 1171 delegates will have been pledged. In order for Perry to survive, he will need to pick up a number of other, probably southern states along the way. The first two South Carolina and Florida, appear to be out of reach for Perry. But between February 4th and February 7th, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri are all up for grabs. Maine and Minnesota aren’t what you’d consider Perry territory. That means Perry needs to do well in Nevada and one of the other two to be able to sustain a perceived shot at victory. Without that perception, he’s wasting delegates for other potential not-Romney candidates in the race.
So Perry won’t go away after Iowa, but depending on what happens in the intervening time, he may bow out before Super Tuesday, which isn’t until March 6th this year. By remaining in the race he will pick up some delegates, as not all the states in this cycle will be winner-take-all – some will have delegates assigned as proportional to their percentage of the overall vote totals. That eats into Romney’s numbers but because of the constituency overlap with the other Not Romney candidates, it hurts them more and as a result, helps Mitt Romney. Barring some sort of heroic turnaround before Super Tuesday, Rick Perry could be the Not Romney candidate’s spoiler. I honestly can’t see him climbing back into this race. The best case scenario I see for Perry is to have a muliti-way delegate split and for him to hope to do well in a brokered convention. That’s possible, but even in that scenario, I think his ceiling is roughly 580 delegates and at best, third place in the delegate count in June.
That brings us to Michele Bachmann. At an RCP average of 6.2% nationally, Bachmann’s delegates may be the real prize here. If Bachmann finishes fifth or worse in Iowa, it is reasonable to expect her to call it quits. Sarah Palin has also called on her to step aside. It makes sense in the not Romney scenarios, as her delegates could be merged with whomever the anti-Romney turns out to be. More importantly for Bachmann herself, she has a seat in Minnesota to defend in 2012. If she doesn’t make it to the GOP presidential ticket as the headliner or eventually in the VP slot, she needs to defend that seat. If she’s angling for a VP slot, the smart play would be to drop out after a bad finish in Iowa and endorse a front-runner. If she endorses Mitt Romney, she loses some clout as a Tea Party patriot in name only (TPPINO?), but the early endorsement could lead to a near Romney cake walk the rest of the way and he’d be obliged to include her if not on the ticket, then at least in some cabinet post.
Of course, she could choose to endorse someone else, but whom? Newt Gingrich has mentioned Palin as a possible VP nominee, so that’s not an obvious choice for her. She won’t endorse Huntsman and endorsing Perry may be enough to consolidate their support, but Perry may already be in the permanent Also-ran category. She won’t want to back a loser, because she has time to look beyond 2012 and backing a loser doesn’t help her longer term cause. Ron Paul? No, she (rightly) called him dangerous on foreign affairs. That leaves Rick Santorum, with whom she probably has a great deal of political alignment. But for Rick Santorum to perform beyond just socially conservative Iowa, and other similar states, is going to prove very difficult. Looking beyond the primaries, I would rate his electability versus Obama as lower than Romney, Gingrich or Perry. His candidacy has a sustainability problem that still needs to be overcome. Bachmann’s endorsement won’t be enough to do that. She could still endorse him, but this is what I’d call a dark horse scenario.
Coming out of Iowa, either at her post caucus speech or a day or two down the road, I’m most interested in Bachmann’s speech. Her announcement could be the next big factor in shaping the race. This is why I think impact of the Also-rans starts after tonight and the decisioning of Huntsman, Perry and initially particularly Bachmann will re-orient the race to some degree (either significantly or not at all).
That’s it for Part I. Part 2 – GOP primaries – the Wildcards will coming later today. Also coming later today will be Part 3 – GOP primaries – Beyond the nomination.