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Race for the White House: what to watch for in Iowa

The Republican presidential campaign has already provided plenty of drama and entertainment, but things are about to get even more interesting with the start of actual voting. The first event, the Iowa caucuses, take place in the depth of a mid-western winter on January 3.

The key thing to understand about Iowa is that its intrinsic importance is negligible — only a small number of delegates are at stake, Iowa is untypical of the Republican electorate at large, and the idiosyncratic voting system makes in more unrepresentative still. Instead, it’s mostly about perception: what a candidate’s performance, relative to expectations, does for their momentum, including media attention and fund-raising ability.

Current expectations are that Newt Gingrich will score a clear but not overwhelming victory, that Mitt Romney and Ron Paul will be roughly equal second, and that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann will be the best of the others some distance back. For more detail, see the polling averages at RealClearPolitics and the forecast modelling by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.

Things often move quickly in primary contests, so the landscape could change over the next two weeks. But if those expectations are borne out — and for what it’s worth, they seem reasonable to me — it’s hard to see how anyone other than Gingrich or Romney can win the nomination.

Perry depends on the Gingrich balloon deflating so that he can take his place as the anti-Romney candidate. To make a go of it, he would need to get into the top three in Iowa, be well clear of Bachmann, and have Gingrich do significantly worse than expected. For Bachmann, who appeals to much the same sort of voter, the task is much the same, but her lack of establishment support makes it even harder. Whichever of them loses to the other in Iowa is probably doomed.

Paul is relatively stronger in Iowa but even more disliked by the establishment. He needs to win Iowa or at least dead-heat with Gingrich, and preferably have Gingrich and Romney perform below expectations; that would allow him to hope for maybe a second-place finish in a crowded New Hampshire field, after which the media might start taking him seriously.

John Huntsman, who is not a serious contender in Iowa, depends on Romney being badly beaten there to give him traction in New Hampshire. If Romney can be fatally weakened in the early contests, respectable Republican opinion may rally to Huntsman as the only sane candidate remaining.

At the moment, none of these scenarios looks very likely. More probably, Romney will go on to win New Hampshire on January 10, Gingrich will win South Carolina on January 21, and both will stay in the running at least until super Tuesday on March 6.

Gingrich, however, is not looking as strong as he was a week or two ago.

It may be that, like Perry, Bachmann and Herman Cain before him, he has peaked too early. Silver last week suggested that “the race remains quite fluid, but that fluidity may no longer be working to Gingrich’s benefit”, and that his lack of money and of high-profile endorsements limits his ability to respond to his opponents’ attacks now that he is a more visible target.

However, as Silver also points out, none of this seems to have translated into stronger support for Romney, whose national numbers remain stubbornly stuck below 25%. So while Romney deservedly remains the favourite overall, it’s unlikely to be plain sailing for him — even with what would otherwise seem the inestimable advantage of having Newt Gingrich as his prime opponent.

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  • 1
    TimRichards1
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    … respectable Republican opinion may rally to Huntsman as the only sane candidate remaining.”

    It’s a scary thought that you can use this kind of description and few will vigorously dispute its accuracy; in that several of these candidates seem to have little firm psychological connection to what might be called the Real World.

  • 2
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Who cares, the whole process is money driven and flawed, you get the richest imcompent idiots being nominated. Its all about big money

  • 3
    Liz45
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree SB. I’m so sick of the coverage of the forthcoming election, I’m just changing channels. I got up to watch Obama’s inauguration and he’s a huge disappointment. Like many people, I was excited when he was elected - should’ve known better! A bigger war monger than Bush, and he’s just disallowed a good policy for women re contraception? that really p****d me off! I can’t stand any of the Republicans, as they’re a bunch of hypocrites or misogynists or????Who cares? Diddle dum and diddle dummer, much like here! I just wish the people would wake up and start getting organised - any alternative to these two money grabbing, spending mob would be refreshing - unless they were even worse war mongers!!!!

    I won’t be conned again! I’m just tuning out of the whole charade! It’s rubbish! (world’s biggest democracy, blah blah! What nonsense!).

  • 4
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Charles:

    Do I detect a BIG backpeddle on your part with your statement:

    The key thing to understand about Iowa is that its intrinsic importance is negligible — only a small number of delegates are at stake, Iowa is untypical of the Republican electorate at large, and the idiosyncratic voting system makes in more unrepresentative
    still.”

    You & I both know that Ron Paul will win it in a canter….thus
    you’re fabulous backpeddle. He’ll also win New Hampshire.

    When President Paul takes the oath of office, you’ll no doubt be predicting he’ll be a one term President !!!!

  • 5
    kennethrobinson2
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Are these people really the best that the big corporations can afford?.
    US finances must be a real mess.

  • 6
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    kennethrobinson2:

    check out

    http://www.ronpaul.com

    ..and prepare to be surprised…any which way….

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    A Paul/Nader ticket would be the only sane ticket which is the main reason it won’t happen. My fevered phantasy of a Bachmann/Palin ticket was always a forlorn hope but, given the stupendously dumb choices amerikans have made since Ike, not impossible.
    It looks like Romney will be the nominee by default, the Evil of Too Many Lessers so the only interest will be his Veep choice. Huntsman? Pawlenty?

  • 8
    Liz45
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    @KENNETH - But aren’t they hypocrites? The economy is going down the gurgler in the US; so many people living in poverty and on the streets due to Wall St and the like, and yet the major parties will accept all the donations they can for the campaign? Am I the only one who’s shaking her head?

    The Republicans don’t want the rich to lose any of their obscene tax cuts; belly ache over health care policies; whine over monies to education, but you never hear a peep about the 43cents in every dollar spent on the war machine? Never hear them talk about how important education is for every american child? Or that 18,000 people die each year due to no health cover, or they’ve been knocked back by their Insurance company and allowed to die!

    I’m going to continue to change channels when the circus really gets into full swing! I find it repugnant! Palin and the recent woman who’s taken a back seat now make me feel embarrassed to be a woman. They could at least do some reading and talk some sense! But then, can’t Palin see Russia from her back door step?

    Incredible!

  • 9
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    LIZ45: you’re generalising about the GOP candidates at a time when history
    is being made by Congressman Ron Paul. He has sought no support from
    Wall St et al, and is relying on ordinary Americans for his support.

    We may be seeing in Ron Paul a 21st century Abe Lincoln…hi support
    is surging across the US, despite the blackout on his performance by the
    major news networks (who are off course owned by the MIC card carriers
    such as Westinghouse & GE).

    Paul’s mantra is that DC is a poor joke operating against the interests of
    most Americans e.g. US foreign policy has been hijacked by the MIC &
    AIPAC. He also wants to totally reform the Federal Reserve bank which he says is an insstrument of the Wall St/AIPAC gang.

    Check out his appearance this week on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show……all I can add to this is ….Ron Paul Ron Paul!!!!!!

  • 10
    kennethrobinson2
    Posted Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    @ Kevin
    Thanks good one, the only reservation I have is that he is only one year younger than me, but he definately would be the best of the bunch

  • 11
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    @Kevin: No, no back-pedalling; I’ve never said that Iowa was especially important - its predictive record is actually fairly poor - and I’ve never denied that Paul was a chance to win it (because the voters are only the most committed, since they need to show up and caucus for hours on a cold winter evening, and that favors him). His problem is that nationwide his support peaks at about 10-15%, and that won’t increase as others drop out, because the others will all rally to whoever else is still in rather than him. Still, as I’ve said before, if you’re so confident you can get very good odds - he’s at 11-1 on Intrade this morning (good, that is, by your lights - personally I think that’s pretty stingy).

  • 12
    Liz45
    Posted Wednesday, 21 December 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    @KEVIN - The trouble is, that like here, they go on with bs prior to the election, and after, it’s a different story. Look at Obama and Guantanamo Bay; women’s rights; health policies and many others too numerous to mention. More drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan in his first couple of years than Bush in his whole 8 yr term.

    The fact is, that big money rules America; corporate wealth and Wall St and the war machine. An elected president has to comply with their agenda - otherwise he or she would end up like JFK! I refuse to get ‘starry eyed’ over any of them - particularly the major parties.

    As a pensioner, I can’t afford pay tv, so I don’t have access to Jay Leno - only Letterman on 10! He seems to be a good man! Certainly doesn’t like the Republicans from what I can judge! He continued to pay his writers during the strike a couple of years ago. I admired him for that!

    Ron Paul must be wealthy to be running - otherwise he doesn’t have a hope it would seem! I often think that the US citizens get who they deserve - trouble is, our politicians kiss their bums regardless - and we have to cop them too!

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