Over the next three weeks, the heat-to-light ratio in the press coverage of the Iowa caucuses will rise steadily. Here are a few basics to keep in mind.
1. Iowa is a flawed leading indicator, especially for Republicans.
Of the past five contests without an incumbent Republican president,
the Iowa winner has gone on to receive the nomination only twice—in 1996
(Dole) and 2000 (George W. Bush). On the other hand, Iowa typically
winnows the field and seems likely to do so again. If Bachmann and
Santorum don’t do significantly better than expected in Iowa, their
campaigns for all practical purposes will end. If Perry doesn’t do well
despite spending millions on advertising, he’ll probably have enough
left in the bank to continue, but with poor prospects of success.
2. A Gingrich victory in Iowa would put him in a strong position to go the distance—by
narrowing or even overcoming Mitt Romney’s margin in New Hampshire and
by putting him in an excellent position to sweep the Southern primaries,
where he now leads Romney by a combined 41 to 16 percent.
3. Ron Paul is Romney’s new best friend. Not only is Paul
attacking Gingrich relentlessly, but also a strong Paul showing in Iowa
would almost certainly come at Gingrich’s expense. Because Romney is
unlikely to prevail in Iowa, the best outcome for him would be a victory
by a candidate with no chance of going on to win the nomination. More
than a few veteran observers of the Iowa scene believe that Paul’s
combination of strong organization and fervent support could produce
just such a result.
4. Paul is not the Tea Party candidate. In fact, 56
percent of likely Republican caucus-goers who sympathize with the Tea
Party have ruled out voting for Paul—more than for any other candidate.
By contrast, only 17 percent have ruled out Gingrich, while only 31
percent have done so for Romney. The reason is simple—Tea Partiers are
fervent across-the-board conservatives, not libertarians, and disagree
with Paul on many social and foreign policy issues. Indeed, Paul’s
profile disrupts standard ideological categories. 13 percent of
Republicans see him as liberal, 20 percent as moderate, another 20
percent as somewhat conservative, and 28 percent as very conservative,
while the remainder just don’t know what to make of him.
5. Romney and Gingrich’s ideological profiles are much clearer to voters.
Likely Republican primary and caucus participants have found it much
easier to locate Romney and Gingrich along the left-right continuum. 57
percent see Gingrich as somewhat or very conservative, versus 28 percent
who regard him as moderate. Romney profile is almost the mirror-image:
53 percent see him as moderate, versus only 29 percent as somewhat or
very conservative. In a party whose grassroots supporters are mainly
conservative, Gingrich’s ideological position gives him an advantage—if
he can maintain it. That’s why Romney and others have begun attacking
him for past positions that defied conservative orthodoxy.
6. Romney has lost his “electability” edge: What was once his
greatest asset among Republicans—the belief that he was far more likely
to defeat Barack Obama than was any other contender—now seems to be
slipping away. As recently as mid-November, fully 30 percent of primary
and caucus participants espoused that view, versus only 13 percent for
Gingrich. Now, 35 percent give the electability award to Gingrich,
versus 28 percent for Romney.
Are these Republicans right? Based on the evidence, anyway, it’s hard
to say. On the one hand, a synthesis of recent surveys suggests that
Obama would beat Gingrich handily but is in a dead heat with Romney. On
the other hand, a recent Gallup/USA Today poll showed that both Romney
and Gingrich lead Obama in the twelve crucial swing states by almost
identical margins. And one could make a case that Gingrich’s more
welcoming stance on immigration would serve him well with Hispanics in a
general election—assuming that it doesn’t become his Achilles heel
during the nominating contest.
7. The Republican race remains fluid and unsettled. Only a
third of Romney’s supporters back him strongly; only 29 percent of
Gingrich’s do so. And there are indications—from the Gallup tracking
poll, for example—that the Gingrich tide is receding a bit. A poorer
than expected showing in Iowa could disrupt the momentum of his entire