Newt Gingrich’s rise to front-runner status has dominated the news cycle for the past few weeks, and the main question that's plagued analysts is this: Will the former speaker be able to overcome his many mistakes—i.e., the affairs—and trounce Mitt Romney? The general arc of these arguments is right: Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich will be the Republican nominee. They are the only two candidates who come close to having the right mix of electability, popularity, and approval by party elites to become the GOP nominee. While the Mitt-Newt showdown may seem inevitable, it is wrong to take for granted that either one will win in Iowa. Given polling there, there is a good chance Ron Paul could win. What would this mean for the rest of the campaign?
According to a Des Moines Register poll released this past weekend, 25 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in the state support Newt Gingrich; 18 percent support Ron Paul; and 16 support Romney (a drop from last month’s 22 percent). Nate Silver did some number crunching, and since 1980, the candidate who is ahead in the polls a month out from the caucus won 8 out of 12 times, so a Gingrich victory seems a safe bet. However, the peculiar procedure of the caucus and other polling data make a convincing case for why the 2012 Iowa caucus plays to Paul’s strengths.
First, caucuses reward candidates with strong organizational grassroots organizers who can infiltrate town halls and school buildings on election night and persuade voters to change their minds. Obama’s dedicated organizers were the key to his victory in the Iowa caucus, and Paul’s strongest supporters are drawn from the same demographics as the current incumbent’s—moderates, liberals, and young adults. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad remarked on the strength of Paul’s efforts in his state: “Ron Paul has got probably the best organization and has a very loyal following. He’s got more yard signs and bumper stickers than anybody else.” The second reason that Paul has a chance to upset the race is that likely caucus goers are ripe for persuasion. Eleven percent of voters are undecided, and a whopping 60 percent are willing to change their mind. Paul may not win, but he has the potential to do very well. Even a second-place victory could level the battleground before New Hampshire.
With Ron Paul as the wild card, it’s easy to say 2012 could be a repeat of 2008, when the front-runner ended up in third place and never really recovered. If Ron Paul does well, Newt Gingrich could finish second or third, throwing off his momentum and giving Mitt Romney an opening to push to the front again with a big victory in New Hampshire, where he is currently ahead with 35 percent of likely voters according to a CNN/Time/ORC poll, and Gingrich trails by nine percentage points.
A Paul victory in Iowa won’t signal that the libertarian should start preparing his convention speech—his campaign war chest is far too empty to sustain a long primary battle, and his special brand of support won’t translate into votes in the general election. But his victory would serve as a reminder that although we have a good idea of what the outcome of the next few primary contests will be, the details of how we will get to that point are still unclear.