The Republican field is crowded and fluid right now, but it won’t be for long. By January 11th, there will be at most three remaining contenders, and we’ll have a much clearer understanding of how the race will develop.
There are seven candidates with a pulse, and only six of them—divided into two groups of three—are competing in Iowa. For two of the three denizens of the lower tier—Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum—failing to finish among the top three on January 3rd would spell the effective end of their candidacies. The third—Rick Perry—would probably have enough money left to stagger on to New Hampshire, but with the prospect of eventual success even further reduced from its current low level.
The calculus for the top tier is equally straightforward. Mitt Romney got 25 percent of the vote in 2008 and seems poised to do about that well this year, which could be enough to eke out a first-place finish in a divided field. If not, the best outcome for Romney would be a victory for Ron Paul, who will not be the eventual nominee, while the worst outcome would be a win for either Newt Gingrich (not improbable) or Rick Perry (improbable but not impossible). Unlike Gingrich, Romney could survive a fourth-place finish in Iowa without permanent damage. (McCain placed fourth in 2008, but that didn’t matter after New Hampshire.)
If the top three finishers are Romney, Paul, and X, then we’re probably looking at a two-person race between Romney and X as the race heads south after New Hampshire—“probably” because a New Hampshire win is central to Romney’s entire strategy. He owns a house in the state and has spent more time there during the past four years than have some of its residents. A defeat for Romney in The Granite State would represent a personal repudiation and a near-mortal blow to his candidacy. The same is true for Jon Huntsman, who has staked everything on New Hampshire; a second-place finish would be a moral victory but would not be enough to sustain his candidacy for long.
Now, back to X. Romney is notably weak in the two key southern contests after New Hampshire, trailing Gingrich by 37 to 21 in South Carolina and by a stunning 43 to 25 in Florida. Put simply, Gingrich is the Sunbelt candidate, while Romney is the candidate of the northern tier: Five of his eleven 2008 victories came in states on the Canadian border; not a single one was south of the Mason-Dixon line. If Newt is still in the race after New Hampshire, he’ll be favored to win the next two contests. And if Perry is the survivor, the not-Mitt majority might well coalesce around him. Either outcome would portend a grinding, dragged-out contest for the Republican nomination. (Recall that McCain won not only New Hampshire in 2008, but also South Carolina and Florida.) On the other hand, Romney did finish second in Florida four years ago, losing to McCain by only 5 points. Assuming that he wins in New Hampshire but not South Carolina, where he finished a distant fourth in 2008, Florida could make the difference between prolonged trench warfare and a tolerably smooth path to the nomination.
In conclusion, a few generic tips and caveats:
- Don’t pay too much attention to the national totals right now. As Elaine Kamarck has argued in her book on presidential primaries, the process is sequential, with the results of each contest influencing the next. (She and I lived through the 1984 Democratic nominating race, in which Gary Hart’s distant second-place finish in Iowa propelled him to an astounding New Hampshire victory over our candidate, Walter Mondale).
- While the debates have shaped the Republican contest up to now, don’t discount the impact of the traditional resources—money and organization. Gingrich’s severe shortage of both has left him defenseless against a massive onslaught of negative campaigning, which has cost him about half of his peak support in Iowa.
- Don’t go to the other extreme and count Newt out. After a tough three weeks, his numbers have stabilized, both in Iowa and elsewhere. He’s a known, tested quantity for many older Republicans—the kinds of voters who typically show up to caucus and vote. And Tea Party sympathizers are less likely than are pundits to view his temperament as disqualifying.
- If you want to know what’s going to happen in Iowa, pay attention to the final (late December) Des Moines Register poll, which rarely misses the mark.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.