In a campaign that has been marked by volatility -- evidenced by the front-runner position in polls being handed from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney -- the results of the Iowa caucuses may offer some clarity.
The most recent surveys show that either Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas or former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania could win as they spend a final day campaigning today in Iowa.
“The Iowa caucuses are really about giving the media a voter-based reason to narrow their national coverage to two or three candidates,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns. “Success is driven by the media attention, which in turn has a huge impact on fundraising and even polling numbers in the next wave of state primaries.”
The fluidity of the contest in Iowa was underscored in the final Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper Dec. 31 that showed 41 percent of likely Republican caucus participants said they could change their minds.
“Ten days ago the polls said I was going to finish last,” Santorum told a crowd gathered yesterday in the lobby of a hotel in Perry, Iowa. “Polls change. Convictions shouldn’t. And that’s what I bring to the equation.”
Later, Santorum told voters to “not settle” for “someone who can appeal to moderate voters by being more moderate.”
“He wasn’t leading the charge to slash the budgets and vote against big government,” Paul said.
The New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10, with its tradition of humbling front-runners, will be the next test. And two of the candidates, Perry, the Texas governor, and Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, have decided to go directly from Iowa to South Carolina, where more voters place a greater emphasis on social issues like abortion.
All have said they will participate in debates in New Hampshire Jan. 7 and Jan. 8. Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker who has vowed to take a more aggressive approach with Romney after pledging to run a positive campaign, vaulted to the lead in the race a month ago because of his debate performances.
The campaign in Iowa has also demonstrated the power of money by so-called Super PACs to affect the race. Of the estimated $5.8 million spent on television advertising in Iowa through Dec. 30, $3.7 million financed negative ads, according to most recent data available from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising.
Most attacked Gingrich, who was leading in Iowa polls from mid-November through mid-December. The commercials were primarily financed by Paul, Perry and an outside committee that backs Romney.
It’s Romney who has shown the greatest consistency in the race, even as he has been unable to get above a quarter of the support of likely Republican voters virtually everywhere outside New Hampshire. He received a quarter of the Iowa vote in 2008 to finish second to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
National polls have shown Romney would have the best chance of beating Obama in a head-to-head matchup.
Romney’s team has succeeded for the most part in making the electability argument. The Iowa Poll showed almost half of likely caucus participants say that Romney is the “most electable” general-election candidate in the field.
The poll had Romney with a narrow lead over Paul, followed by Santorum, who surged in the final two days of sampling last week.
A victory by Romney, 64, would position him to do well in New Hampshire. He was backed by 43 percent of likely primary voters in a Suffolk University/7NEWS two-day tracking poll released yesterday. No Republican who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has failed to become the party nomination.
After waging a largely stealth campaign in Iowa for most of the past year, Romney intensified his efforts in the state in the closing weeks of the campaign. A skeleton staff was bolstered with bodies dispatched from his headquarters in Boston and he has flooded the state’s airwaves with advertising.
Even a second-place showing in Iowa for Romney, especially if it were behind the libertarian-leaning Paul, would be seen as strong.
“By competing and winning in Iowa he would have a chance to wrap this nomination up pretty early,” said David Yepsen, a former political writer at the Des Moines Register who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “I’ve always thought it was a pretty good risk for him to take.”
One of the greatest unknowns today is turnout, something that can’t be easily predicted by polls. Four years ago, about 120,000 Republicans attended caucus meetings, a number that most party observers in the state have said will grow.
“I’m expecting that we are going to see a great turnout,” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad predicted yesterday on MSNBC.
Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in voter registration in Iowa, while independent voters outnumber both parties. In 2008, roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out for their caucuses, a record. Polls have shown Republicans saying they have greater intensity among their partisans and the caucus will be a test of that.
In a show of confidence, Romney announced that he intends to stay in Iowa the morning after the caucus results are in, before flying to New Hampshire, where he has enjoyed popularity because of his time as governor of a neighboring state and his ownership of a vacation home there.
As they have for months, Romney’s strategists say they are prepared -- and best equipped -- for a long primary fight, should it happen. They’re increasingly turning their attention to the next set of contests, including Florida, where absentee ballots are already in the hands of thousands of voters.
“The key is who has the organization that’s strong enough to keep going from state to state to state,” said campaign strategist Eric Fehrnstrom. “As you look at the field, the answer to that is obvious. It’s Mitt Romney.”
Before the voting starts, Romney is a prohibitive betting favorite to win the Republican nomination with a roughly 80 percent probability as of late yesterday, according to InTrade.com, an online betting service.
“Historical comparisons of primaries can be problematic given differences in the number of candidates and number of polls conducted each election,” the report said. “It still seems clear that this phase of the 2012 Republican nomination process has been the most volatile for the [party] since the advent of polling.”
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