There are but seven weeks remaining to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus on January 3, and the GOP presidential primary race remains unsettled, both in that state’s contest and the national race. It is a sign of the fluidity of the race that one can find articles on the same day that point to the near certain GOP ticket — Romney and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell — and another from New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver arguing that Romney has slipped a good bit in the last few weeks and is now only one of the top three contenders.
After some predictable skirmishing among the states which lead off the primary and caucus schedule, the calendar now appears to be set. Iowa will go first on January 3, New Hampshire will hold the first-in-the-nation primary a week later on January 10, and South Carolina will hold the first primary in the south on Saturday, January 21. Florida will be the first big state primary on January 31, and Nevada will hold the first contest in the west on February 4.
As has been the case since the race began a year ago, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is in the mix both nationally and in the first three states. Romney has always been expected to win New Hampshire handily, a state where he has a summer home and is well known from his time as governor of Massachusetts. A victory for him in Iowa would be a much bigger deal, since the GOP voters in the Hawkeye State are more conservative than in New Hampshire, and contain perhaps half or more evangelical Christians.
Several of the GOP contenders, including former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have made Iowa almost their sole focus, hoping that their strong social conservative credentials will have appeal there. On the other hand, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has targeted New Hampshire, where his more moderate brand of conservatism might have appeal and may give him a lift going into the next phase of the race. Two of the leaders in national polling — businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — have not focused very much on the early states, and have run more of a national campaign, using the debates as a platform to gain support.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul has a solid support level of around 10% pretty much everywhere, and seems happy to stay in the race, regardless of how he finishes in any of the early state contests. And Texas Governor Rick Perry has slipped badly after a series of poor debate performances, and his fundraising is now going about as well as Penn State’s recruitment of high school football players for next season.
What has changed over the last few months has been the identity of the principal challenger to Mitt Romney. After a few good debate performances, and victory in the Iowa straw poll, Michele Bachmann had that role. When Rick Perry entered the race, he soared to a solid lead in national polls, taking away most of Bachmann’s support, only to lose 2/3 of that support after the first half dozen debates in which he participated. Herman Cain won the Florida straw poll, and became the new heartthrob for the right. He has maintained his standing at or near the top of national and state polls despite some missteps in statements he has made on foreign policy and abortion, and, more dramatically, charges of sexual harassment by at least four women from his period as head of the National Restaurant Association. Cain has denied all the accusations, and many of his supporters have rallied to his defense, seeing a “hit” by the liberal media at work. Cain’s support level has dropped a bit, but his disapproval rating among GOP voters has risen substantially, suggesting those not in his camp are unlikely to move there, and he may have reached a ceiling for his support level.
The new factor in the race, and the latest rising star, is Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has stood alone in the debates as an articulate Obama critic, and refused to enter the bash-the-leader demolition derby that is often instigated by debate moderators. His rise in the polls is different than Bachmann’s, Perry’s, and Cain’s since his support appears to be coming as much from Romney as from conservative challengers to Romney. That unchangeable 23-25% national support level for Romney has now dipped below 20% in one survey and to the low 20s in others as Gingrich’s numbers have risen. In essence, Gingrich plays to both the establishment side of the GOP field with Romney and Huntsman, and the conservative side with the other five contenders.
The winner in Iowa will get a lot of national attention, a boost to his fundraising effort, and a jolt in the polls nationally and in the next primary and caucus states. Romney will need to make a decision soon on whether he makes a big investment to win Iowa, which might, with a near certain New Hampshire victory the next week, put him in position to win four of the first five contests (Nevada and Florida are likely to be good states for him), with only South Carolina a real challenge. That would effectively end the race by early February. On the other hand, if Romney makes a big effort and loses, or makes a more modest effort and loses, he provides an avenue for new momentum to one or more challengers in the states to follow Iowa.
Romney has, to some extent, benefited from having a collection of challengers on the right who have divided up the non-Romney vote. If several of these candidates drop out after disappointing finishes in Iowa, it could spell trouble in one-on-one contests, or three-way contests between Romney, Gingrich and the surviving conservative challenger. Ron Paul will take a ticket out of Iowa, as the vernacular goes, regardless of his final position in the caucus. So will Romney. Will Iowa stem Gingrich’s momentum, or boost it? Will Perry, or Santorum, or Bachmann gain support if Cain stumbles in the next few weeks and loses his base of support? Cain held the lead in the last Iowa poll.
But there could well be a new leader in the next survey, either Romney or Gingrich.
New Hampshire surveys have consistently shown big leads for Romney. If Romney does not win Iowa, he is still likely to win New Hampshire, with the Iowa winner taking second in the Granite State. South Carolina is a bit more of a problem for Romney, with conservative voters dominating the state GOP and Cain leading the most recent survey, with Gingrich second and Romney third. If Cain’s recent stumbles cost him support here, Gingrich could take the lead. Were Gingrich to win Iowa and South Carolina and finish second in New Hampshire, he would be the leader going into the next contests in Florida and Nevada. On the other hand, if Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he may have enough momentum to win in South Carolina too. Even a second place finish in South Carolina would not damage him badly and he would be well positioned in Florida and Nevada .
Much like the Democratic primary race in 2004, where John Kerry and John Edwards came from well off the pace to pass the leaders — Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt — seven weeks out from the caucuses, there could be lots of movement in the race in Iowa and nationally the next few weeks. The biggest wild card is Herman Cain. If his supporters begin to abandon him, or his lack of organization means he underperforms his support level in Iowa, then several candidates could get a boost — really all of the other seven, other than Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman.