The New Year will usher in the official start of the nomination process for the Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential race. In the days leading up to the Iowa caucus, which holds the coveted first word in a long series of state primaries, there has been a surprising twist in the polls. In the lead is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, whose campaign has largely ignored Iowa until recently, followed closely (and often within a statistical margin of error) by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whom most “experts” had written off at the start of his candidacy.
A Ron Paul victory in Iowa could have a large impact in the national primary race. The mainstream media might be convinced that such a victory would indicate only the irrelevancy of the Iowa caucus, but Paul’s campaign has never depended on a coronation by talking heads. If he takes Iowa, Paul will convince voters in other states that he is not “unelectable,” which could be holding back support from thousands of voters. That could turn the tides and put Paul in a strong position for the nominating convention in August.
From Romney’s perspective, Iowa is win-win. Confident of a landslide win in New Hampshire, Romney is pushing for a double victory that would cement his front-runner status. To Romney’s campaign, a Paul victory in Iowa means only that more serious, more “electable” contenders look even weaker in comparison. Either way, Romney’s campaign comes out on top.
The Iowa caucuses will ultimately be determined by three factors:
(1) The effect of negative publicity from Paul’s recurring newsletter scandal. Recent polling shows Paul’s downward trajectory, which is most likely the result of rising awareness that patently racist remarks were published under his name in a series of newsletters during the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, Romney’s numbers are rising.
(2) The impact of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s too-little-too-late rise in the polls. Santorum has faster growth in Iowa than any other candidate, but it appears unlikely that he has enough momentum to capture anything but third place. Whether Santorum’s growing support comes more from defecting Romney or Paul supporters could spoil this close race for either candidate.
(3) The respective effectiveness of Romney and Paul’s campaign organizations. Romney is quickly playing catch-up in Iowa after having practically written it off at the start of his campaign. Meanwhile, Paul has steadily constructed a sophisticated grassroots organization designed to funnel his fervent supporters into the polls on January 3rd.
Paul needs to win in Iowa to stay competitive in this race. With Romney already ahead in the polls nationally, a victory in Iowa and then New Hampshire would buttress his position and all but guarantee that he becomes the 2012 GOP nominee. That said, Rep. Paul has continued to surprise the naysayers, and America loves an underdog.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore