The 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign has been the most volatile and least predictable campaign in my lifetime. In spite of this, I see several potential scenarios in the early states, all subject to change at any moment.
We are now less than three weeks from the Iowa Caucuses and there are (thankfully) no more televised debates. This campaign is now being waged over the air and on the ground, in the homes, coffee shops, diners, and community centers of Iowa.
How will it go?
One of four ways:
1) Chaos Theory — There is a very real chance that libertarian Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) wins Iowa with between 22 and 28 percent. Nothing will shake up the race more than this outcome. If this happens, it virtually ensures that Paul remains in the race throughout the entire primary, picking up delegates and raising millions to spend across many states. He will not win many states (maybe only Iowa), but with the new proportional delegate system, he will likely finish second or third in delegates when it’s all said and done. Politico‘s Ben Smith recently predicted that he could envision a future where Ron Paul’s delegates could tip the balance at a brokered convention. Who benefits from a Ron Paul boomlet? Most likely Mitt Romney, as Paul’s success will scare conservatives and the GOP establishment alike. Although it may also force the consolidation of conservatives behind another, non-Paul, non-Romney candidate.
2) Newt Theory — A historian by trade, Newt Gincrich has always fancied himself as an historical figure. His prophecy just may become self-fulfilling. His strong debate performances allowed him to come back, and as Herman Cain flamed out Gingrich was the primary beneficiary, rocketing to first place. The resulting attacks that he has sustained (and not responded to) have now stalled his momentum. Newt is not running a traditional campaign — in fact he refuses to. However, he recently hired three respected senior strategists on his bid: David Winston, Kellyanne (Conway) Fitzpatrick and Rex Elsass. His organization is seriously lacking, as he opened his first Iowa office in early December, but should the power of his confidence, communication strengths, and history as a conservative leader result in a significant win in Iowa, the field will narrow, resulting in the Romney nightmare scenario: a two-man race. Romney’s Super PAC is attacking Newt, as is Ron Paul’s campaign, in paid media. They both see him as a threat, reaffirming his status as the lead dog, although recent polling shows that he his standing is on a downward trajectory.
3) Late Surprise Theory — A recent poll found that 60 percent of likely Iowa Caucus participants are undecided. Most polls show Newt, Romney, Ron Paul, and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) in the top four spots, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) not far behind. A Caucus is not a primary — it’s a completely different system. Voting requires several hours on a cold Tuesday night, voting publicly in front of your friends and neighbors. It takes a certain kind of person to vote in a Caucus and the 99 counties of Iowa have rewarded strong organizations in the past. While some think 2012 will be different with earned media and social networking overtaking traditional organizational strength, it remains entirely possible that any of the top four candidates could narrowly win Iowa in a bunched up result where five points separate first place from fourth. Bachmann and Santorum have spent the most time in Iowa and have some of the most committed supporters and could surprise. If Romney finishes fourth, it could impact his campaign in New Hampshire, which has always been his strategic firewall.
4) Long Slog Theory — The 2012 Republican primary appears likely to last as long as the 2008 Democratic primary. No candidate has earned and kept frontrunner status, united the establishment and conservatives, or removed doubts about their individual weaknesses. An anti-Romney candidate will emerge, likely after South Carolina going into Florida, and I believe those two candidates will battle it out at least into April, perhaps through the convention.
With more than two weeks to go, I suspect Paul and Perry (to whom, in full disclosure, I have financially contributed) will over-perform expectations and Romney and Gingrich will underperform in Iowa, although Romney’s recent endorsement from the state’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, will help him.
In the end, Iowa’s impact in 2012 will likely be about who survived in a viable state, not necessarily who won.
But predictions are dangerous and there remains enough time on the clock for things to shift dramatically.