Iowa Caucus: Poll Shows Tie for First, Santorum Spike

ANALYSIS

 @ibtimes
on December 29 2011 11:45 AM
Romney in Iowa
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire Republican U.S. presidential primary on Tuesday by a comfortable margin - his second straight victory in the race to become his party's choice to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama on November 6. Reuters

With the Iowa caucuses just five days away, a new poll shows Ron Paul and Mitt Romney in a statistical dead heat for first place and Rick Santorum, against all odds, in third place.

According to the CNN/Time/ORC poll, released on Wednesday, 25 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers support Romney, 22 percent support Paul and 16 percent support Santorum, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. Three weeks ago, Santorum had just 5 percent support in a similar poll, but now he is statistically tied with Newt Gingrich (14 percent, down from 33 percent in the last poll). Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman round out the pack with 11 percent, 9 percent and 1 percent support, respectively.

The Romney-Paul picture has not changed much in the past three weeks. They have gained 5 percent each as Gingrich has fallen and as more undecided voters have made up their minds, but the gap between them remains 3 percentage points, and it is impossible to say who will come out on top next Tuesday.

The answer to that question, though, could make a big difference in who gets the Republican nomination.

Romney vs. Paul

Romney has held double-digit leads in New Hampshire since the campaign began, and it seems very unlikely he will lose there -- so if he won Iowa, he would be poised to become the first non-incumbent Republican candidate since 1976 to win both states back to back. An accomplishment like that could clinch him the nomination.

If you've lost to Mitt in Iowa and you've lost to Mitt in New Hampshire, what's your case in South Carolina, what's your case in Michigan, what's your case in Florida? U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois, a Romney supporter, asked.

But if Paul wins Iowa, he will gain momentum going into New Hampshire and deny Romney a quick victory. The momentum probably won't be enough to push him past Romney in New Hampshire, given Romney's large lead there, but it would definitely limit Romney's advantage and ensure a more drawn-out primary process before the nominee is determined.

Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said he did not think Paul would win the nomination because of opposition from the party establishment, but he could shake up the race significantly and force his competitors to pay a lot more attention to him and his platform.

I still don't think Paul is much of a national story, but he certainly will be crowing about a strong showing in Iowa, Wilson told the International Business Times. There is literally zero chance of Ron Paul being the Republican nominee. The Republican establishment is not just unenthusiastic about him; they are absolutely dead-set against him. [But] if he has several good early showings, he could have the Republican establishment go through some serious gymnastics.

However, Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, told IBTimes last week that while Paul is unlikely to win the nomination, it's not out of the question -- and even if he doesn't end up winning it all, a win in Iowa would say a lot about the direction in which the Republican Party is heading. For that reason, he said, losing to Paul would be a bigger blow to Romney's campaign than losing to someone like Gingrich.

Recent polls indicate that voters see Romney and Gingrich as very similar candidates, Chandler said. If either of them wins the nomination, then the status quo of Republicans nominating moderate candidates prevails. But if Paul wins, that indicates that the ideological center of the Republican Party is undergoing a significant transformation, one that is no longer friendly to traditional Republicans.

An Expectations Game

What makes Iowa interesting, though, is the fact that it is more an expectations game than a strict numbers game. The winner of the Iowa caucus does not always or even usually go on to win the nomination, but candidates who place higher than people thought they would get a big advantage.

If they do sufficiently better than expected, they may be able to leverage that to build momentum going into subsequent contests, Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York, told IBTimes. Candidates that beat their expectations substantially could still benefit from that performance in caucuses and primaries even if they fail to be one of the top winners [in Iowa].

This means that tempering expectations can be more important than winning outright.

Paul's expectations have shot up in recent weeks with his rise in the polls, leading Craig Robinson, the editor of the Web site The Iowa Republican, to tell Bloomberg Businessweek, His team no longer just hopes to win -- they now expect to win. A month ago, Paul and his supporters would have been thrilled with a second-place finish, and that finish would have given him a lot of momentum. But now that many people expect him to win, a second-place finish would be a disappointment, and he needs to finish in first place to get that same momentum.

Conversely, Romney has spent most of the past few months campaigning only lightly in Iowa, because he didn't expect to be able to win over its socially conservative voters. Until recently, he had focused nearly all of his energy and resources on New Hampshire, where he knew he could win. But now, with Gingrich fading, and with the knowledge that a loss to Paul could be very costly, Romney has doubled down on the Iowa campaign trail, even telling voters in Clinton, Iowa, I can't possibly allow myself to think in such optimistic terms, [but] I can tell you, if the people here in Clinton are any example, or any indication, of what's going to happen in the process, I feel pretty good. In raising expectations ahead of the caucus, Romney may, like Paul, have turned a second-place finish from a victory into a loss.

Santorum: A Surprising Beneficiary

Santorum, who snagged endorsements last week from influential evangelical leaders Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley, is the only candidate who is clearly poised to exceed expectations. Just one month ago, he was averaging less than 4 percent support among Iowa voters; only Jon Huntsman, who has ignored Iowa almost completely, was polling below him. If he managed to push Gingrich out of the top three, it would be an astonishing upset and a huge boost for his credibility, though he would still have a very hard time of it in less socially conservative states.

He tempered expectations expertly the other day, saying there were really three contests happening in Iowa: one among establishment Republicans who like Romney or Gingrich; one among libertarians who support Paul; and one among evangelicals and social conservatives, who have three choices: Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Santorum knows he cannot win the Iowa caucuses outright, so he has drawn his supporters a picture in which he does not have to win it -- he only has to win the social-conservatives caucus.

If the actual caucuses mirror the CNN/Time/ORC poll -- with Paul and Romney in first and second in some order, Santorum in third and Gingrich in fourth -- Santorum will probably get the biggest boost from the expectations game, even though his chances of winning the nomination are close to zero.

The Iowa caucuses are funny that way.

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