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Handicapping the Iowa Caucus

I’ll assume there was a time when giving Iowa permanent “first in the nation” status in our Presidential primary contests made sense. But, I don’t know when that time was. Mind you, this isn’t some East Coast gripe about “flyover country”; I grew up in the Mid-West and went to college in Iowa. I love the state. Sure, its voters are fickle; BOTH uber-lefty Sen. Tom Harkin and mostly-conservative Sen. Chuck Grassley are hugely popular in the state. That’s not independent. That’s borderline incoherent. And, of course, Iowa’s permanent status has saddled our country with one of the more disastrous government policies in history; ethanol subsidies. My main beef with Iowa’s permanent status is simply that we don’t use caucuses to elect Presidents.

Caucuses are very different animals than primaries. Having participated in one years ago, I can say there is much to recommend about them. But the demands of the caucus mean that relatively few people will participate and those who do participate are very different than other voters. To participate, voters assemble at a set time–tonight’s is 7pm CST. They hear speeches from other voters arguing for each individual candidate and then voting begins. The entire process can take up to two hours. If you’re sick, working, don’t have child-care or simply look upon a two hour voting process with dread, you can’t take part–only around a quarter of the active, registered Republicans will likely vote tonight.

Only the most dedicated and motivated voters, whether for a candidate or an issue, will participate. Moreover, Democrat and Independent voters can show up and register as a Republican on the spot and cast a ballot. This can skew the results; just ask famous caucus losers John McCain, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Mike Dukakis or Ronald Reagan, among others.

The key to performing well in Iowa is to either become the chosen candidate of highly motivated issue voters or have a very strong field organization to turn out your supporters. Remember, only about 150,000 voters will take part tonight, so a strong ground game is critical.

The final Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday, provides the last, best snapshot of the state of the field: Romney 24%, Paul 22%, Santorum 15%, Newt Gingrich 12%, Perry 11% and Bachmann 7%. So, what to expect tonight?

Essentially, Romney and Paul are tied for first, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry are tied for third. I don’t expect Bachmann to be much of a factor, other than shaving a bit of support from Santorum and Perry. Historically, conventional wisdom held that there were three tickets out of the Iowa caucuses. I think this year there are four and, if the margins are very slim, possibly five tickets out. (McCain came in 4th in 2008, but by a very slim 0.4% margin.) Keep in mind, almost as important as how the candidates performed is how, tomorrow, people think they performed. To the candidates:

Mitt Romney

Romney has defined this primary campaign, but not in a way ultimately favorable for him. The race’s volatility, with candidates rising and falling is succession, is due to the simple fact that an overwhelming majority of GOP voters don’t want him as the nominee. Romney has rarely ever inched above 25% in any national poll. He ran a very competitive campaign in 2008, so he is well known to the rank and file. They know him and three-quarters of them don’t want him to be the GOP candidate. Fortunately for Romney there have been enough both credible and, at the same time, flawed other candidates to prevent the 75% from coalescing around the Anti-Romney.

I believe a large part of his support is simply resigned to it, rather than fervently supportive. But, he has a well-funded and organized ground game to get these supporters to the caucus. He may hold onto the lead, but I expect he will under perform tonight.

Ron Paul

I expect Ron Paul will do well tonight and has a very good chance of winning. He has highly motivated supporters and a very good ground operation, the two critical things needed to prevail in Iowa. Paul’s supporters are not going to miss the caucus. His economic views are much more aligned with the electorate than they were in 2008 and his foreign policy views seem less dangerous than they were when the Iraq and Afghan wars were still engaged. Mind you, these foreign policy views will keep him from the nomination, but, in a six candidate field, its less of a liability.

Rick Santorum

It almost defies belief, but some conservatives have decided that Rick Santorum is this week’s chosen Anti-Romney. In a race that has been dominated by debate performance, he was, at best, uneven. But, he staked his entire campaign on Iowa and has centered it on social issues. Evangelicals make up the largest block of caucus goers and he has received the endorsement of well-known social conservatives in the state. Also, his surge has come too late for the other campaigns to fully vet his record. That will begin in earnest tomorrow if he does as well as expected. Preview: in 2004 he vigorously campaigned for Arlen Specter against Pat Tommey in the GOP primary for Senate.

He will not be the nominee. He has no organization outside of Iowa and hasn’t faced any real scrutiny. His appeals on social issues won’t play as well in other states. I also don’t think he will win tonight. In 2008, when Mike Huckabee shook up the race with a surprise win, he was the single pick for evangelicals. This year, while a large number may be breaking towards Santorum, their support is still split with Perry and Bachmann. And, his rise and its attendant surge in donations came too late to build the robust ground game the caucus demands. Unless evangelicals defect wholesale from Perry and Bachmann, Santorum will likely fall short of winning.

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich has sustained withering fire from the other campaigns and it has had a dramatic affect on his support. He is fading at exactly the wrong moment. His support was premised on his ability to defeat Romney. He doesn’t look like that candidate any longer. He also doesn’t have a ground game and isn’t the obvious choice of any issue-motivated voters. I expect he will under perform tonight. The only question is whether he finishes fourth or fifth. If he places fifth, this campaign will probably continue to fade.

Rick Perry

Perry is perhaps the unluckiest candidate in recent memory. Over the past several weeks he has retooled his campaign and become a much more effective candidate. He has built up a very strong ground operation and heavily courted Evangelicals with millions in advertising. Newt’s fade created the perfect opening for Perry to reemerge as a front runner. And, then…Rick Santorum.

That said, I think Perry will over perform tonight. The central question is whether he beats Gingrich. If Perry comes in fourth, his campaign is in good shape. I suspect, though, his ground organization gives him a good shot at a surprising third place finish. Were that to happen, he would again have a turn at being the Anti-Romney.

Michele Bachmann

Bachmann is a very good member of Congress. Her state chair’s betrayal of her should be long remembered by Iowa voters when he runs for reelection.

Final

It is important to remember that this is the beginning of the nomination process, not the end. This year, delegates in Iowa are awarded proportionally, so all top finishers will have a similar number of delegates. The race is very volatile and still unfolding. I can’t over stress the importance of the pre-voting speeches from each campaign. If the campaign’s have effective surrogates, these speeches can shift voters. This is why a good ground organization is so critical and why, if I had to wager, I’d put my money on the best ground games. Paul, Romney and Perry to Win, Place and Show.

It is just the beginning, but it has begun.

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