Sabato's Crystal Ball

Five Days to Iowa

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics December 29th, 2011

With the Iowa caucuses only five days away, we at the Crystal Ball wanted to suggest some possible electoral scenarios that could play out next Tuesday and beyond. Because we love history, and because the past is often prologue, each scenario has some historical precedent:

Scenario 1: Win in Iowa starts frontrunner on path to nomination

In this case, Mitt Romney pulls off a victory in Iowa that catapults him well ahead of the field. With New Hampshire acting as his “firewall” in the competition for the GOP nomination, Romney should be able to grab a victory in the Jan. 10 primary. With two wins in the first two states, Romney would be well-positioned to utilize his financial and organizational advantages in much of the country — not to mention help from the press in anointing him as an inevitable nominee — to move inexorably toward the Republican crown, perhaps quickly, despite the elongated nomination calendar.

The 2004 battle for the Democratic nomination provides precedent for such a plot line. At the beginning of January that year, John Kerry trailed Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in Iowa polling. But by the time the caucuses took place on Jan. 19, Kerry had surged to a slight lead over John Edwards and Dean, and ended up capturing the caucuses with 38% of the vote. Kerry followed his victory in Iowa with a sizable triumph in New Hampshire. From there, Kerry ended up winning the primaries and caucuses in every state except for Oklahoma, North Carolina (Edwards’ home state), South Carolina and Vermont (Dean’s home state).

Scenario 2: Strong outlier candidate makes Iowa irrelevant

Few observers believe that libertarian Ron Paul can actually win the GOP presidential nomination, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win Iowa.

Given his narrow appeal, and despite their vastly different candidacies and ideologies, Paul’s campaign in Iowa brings to mind the 1988 candidacy of the Rev. Pat Robertson, who garnered 25% of the caucus vote to finish second ahead of eventual GOP nominee George H.W. Bush. (Bob Dole placed first.) However, the evangelical leader’s strong performance did not presage much as he only managed to win the caucuses in Alaska, Nevada and Washington state before dropping out of the race. Similarly, we can expect Paul to perform particularly well in caucus settings, where the enthusiasm of his supporters will bring them out in droves to back his candidacy, but to never seriously contend for the GOP’s nod.

One thing’s clear: Given that Iowa has only picked the eventual Republican nominee in two of the last five contested nominating contests, Iowa’s Republican establishment, from Gov. Terry Branstad on down the line, has to be dreading a Paul victory, because it would further tarnish Iowa’s reputation. That said, we imagine that so long as Iowa keeps its first-in-the-nation franchise, the political press and the candidates won’t be able to help themselves from paying plenty of attention to the Hawkeye State in 2016 and beyond.

Scenario 3: Inconclusive result clouds the future

What if Romney, Gingrich and Paul ended up with nearly the same percentage of the caucus vote, keeping anyone from claiming a credible mandate or generating momentum? As we approach the caucus, some polls suggest this could happen, though Gingrich may be declining rather steeply. Considering that Paul would be highly unlikely to be the GOP nominee, Romney and Gingrich would be left as the two main horses in the race headed to New Hampshire. Despite the New Hampshire Union Leader’s backing of Gingrich, Romney would still likely win the Granite State. But South Carolina could slip beyond Romney’s grasp; the heavily conservative and evangelical Christian electorate has never been especially enamored of Romney. The Palmetto State is where Gingrich or any of the other “anti-Mitt” candidates — Rick Santorum? Michele Bachmann? Rick Perry? — will likely try to derail Romney’s march to the nomination. Historically, this scenario brings to mind the 1996 Republican primary contest. Bob Dole, the front-runner, edged Pat Buchanan in the Iowa caucuses by a mere 3%. This stunning result led to Buchanan’s surprising win over Dole (by 1%) in New Hampshire. Yet the Kansan recovered his footing quickly, and prevailed in most of the remaining states.

Keep this in mind too: If Romney finishes even a close third in Iowa, even if that third-place finish is only a few percentage points short of first, he may lose the expectations game in Iowa and leave looking like a loser. Romney finished second in Iowa to Mike Huckabee in 2008, but given the resources he spent there, the chattering classes viewed him as a failure. The conventional wisdom stuck: Romney never won a truly significant contest during the 2008 nomination fight.

Now that Romney and a supportive Super PAC have spent about $4 million on ads in Iowa in December — accounting for close to two of every five dollars spent by all the Republican candidates combined — a perceived poor performance could hurt him in future contests.

Scenario 4: False Start

As we suggested in the first scenario, victory for Romney in Iowa, unexpected only a few weeks ago, could be the beginning of a cake walk to the nomination. Yet history shows that sometimes a victory in Iowa can be something of a false start as we head to New Hampshire because Iowa and New Hampshire oftentimes pick different winners. Part of this may be due to a “contrarian streak” on the part of New Hampshirites, which Nate Silver examined back in October. If Romney does win Iowa, it is possible (albeit unlikely) that his Granite State firewall could flame out.

There are two excellent past examples of the “false start.” In 1980 George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses and had what Bush called “big mo” heading into New Hampshire. Then Reagan won the New Hampshire primary handily; in the end, Bush won the primaries or caucuses in only six states. More recently, in 2008, Barack Obama won a highly contested Iowa caucus and traveled to New Hampshire with a full head of steam. Polling right before Election Day in New Hampshire showed Obama leading Hillary Clinton by as much as 13%. Instead, Granite Staters gave Clinton a 2.6% margin of victory, reigniting her campaign. Although Obama made it to the White House, Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire helped set the scene for an unusually lengthy nomination battle by modern standards.

Conclusion

Perhaps the surest Iowa outcome concerns not the candidates at the top, but the candidates at the bottom. It seems likely that the top four finishers will consist of, in some order, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and a fourth candidate: Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry. With all three of those latter candidates essentially going all out to do well in Iowa, a finish near the back of the pack could very well end their campaigns. If anything, Iowa could perform its traditional role of winnowing down the field. At the least, Iowa might give a clear answer as to which Republicans, if any, will have a real chance to compete with Romney during the long march to Tampa.

As the primary season begins, and after a year when the polls looked like a multi-dimensional roller-coaster, we are back where we started in January: We see Mitt Romney as the strong favorite to be the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. This outlook is the result of two factors: the weakness of the other Republican candidates in this underwhelming field, as well as Romney’s considerable advantages in money, organization and establishment support. But we forget at our peril that a large percentage of Republicans have never been sold on Romney and would much prefer a different nominee. Will a single strong anti-Mitt emerge? That hasn’t happened so far, much to Romney’s benefit. It is possible that Iowa will jumpstart that process. If it doesn’t, Romney may have avoided the greatest single threat to his candidacy.