Today, the months of travel, debates, chops on a stick and the thrills and chills of an Iowa campaign that often resembled an out-of-control roller coaster come to an end.
Caucus-goers finally get their say – and the candidates have to accept their verdict.
Though not totally. Inside the headquarters of each of the GOP presidential hopefuls – and inside the sleep-deprived minds of the candidates themselves – there is a theory of the case for how each of them is launched to a path to the Republican nomination by either placing strongly in the caucus results or simply surviving to fight another day.
Whether through Iowa glory or gutting it out to New Hampshire and/or South Carolina, each candidate has a path forward in mind. Here’s POLITICO’s look, from our own team of political road warriors, at how all seven major GOP candidates are gaming out their best-case plans for Iowa and their post-caucuses spin.
Romney told CBS Monday that he feels like he’ll do well enough in Iowa to get a significant “boost” – and that level of confidence from a candidate who has had bad dreams about Iowa for four years points the way to a pretty simple road out of Des Moines.
Finish strong – maybe even win – and head to the friendly confines of New Hampshire softly repeating the following mantra: “Mitt Romney is an adult who is running to actually be president … Mitt Romney is an adult who is running … ”
While other candidates have been engulfed in dramas petty and significant, swung wildly off message and altered their focus, Romney has, from the campaign’s launch, stuck hard to his message of being an economic fixer who is serious enough to be elected.
In the campaign’s closing week, Romney and his surrogates have relentlessly reminded Iowans that he is the only Republican who can beat President Barack Obama.
By arranging for capacity crowds at each of his events in the closing days, the Romney campaign has created a sense of building momentum, presenting his nomination as an almost foregone conclusion.
Still, Romney and his aides have insisted he doesn’t have to win Iowa, that he isn’t confident about winning Iowa and that his focus is on winning delegates for a long primary campaign.
And with enough money to continue the campaign regardless of his Iowa finish, Romney’s future doesn’t depend on his placement Tuesday night. In part, that has liberated him from running an Iowa-specific campaign.
But it’s obvious to all closely monitoring the race that Romney is pushing hard to win the caucuses, then win New Hampshire’s primary by a big margin Jan. 10 and effectively seal the nomination by the middle of the month.
It’s a recipe for victory either way: If Romney wins Tuesday night, he goes into New Hampshire with the feeling of a winner. If Ron Paul or Rick Santorum wins, Romney faces an Iowa winner who’s not a long-term threat.
All Romney has to do is hold on and not make mistakes.
His rivals say he won’t win the Republican nomination, but in Iowa Ron Paul has a visible path to victory, cleared by his strong organization, fervent supporters and financial backing. And a top three Iowa finish would seem to ensure that Paul gets the role he has always wanted – major player within the party who will be a force to be dealt with at the convention in Tampa and beyond.
Paul has been building an organization here for nearly five years, seeded by supporters of his 2008 presidential campaign who have kept the ground primed for a Paul resurgence as they waited for their candidate to agree to run again. Now, hundreds of young volunteers are on the ground knocking on doors and handing out leaflets to shore up more support for him.
On the stump, Paul has touted his ideological consistency – telling packed venues that he’s been pushing the same message for years but that the mainstream and the media are just now tuning in. His fervent supporters love it, and even the undecided appear unfazed by reports of a series of racist statements in newsletters that went out under his name, though recent polls suggest Paul’s numbers may have peaked.
Paul’s followers believe he is the only candidate capable of restoring America – a message that can win in Iowa and can resonate in the contests to come. Success in Iowa will bring Paul an unprecedented level of scrutiny from the media and from his opponents, but his game plan remains the same: ride a devoted following and an unorthodox but effective fundraising apparatus to long-term, delegate-gathering strategy that brings him power and respect, if not the nomination.
If Rick Santorum wins Iowa, it’ll be because nothing succeeds like success.
The former Pennsylvania senator labored hard in the state all through 2011, building a county-by-county organization, hosting more than 350 town hall meetings even as he languished at the back of the pack in polling. With two recent polls showing him in the hunt to win, a throng of prominent social conservatives endorsing him and two super PACs running ads on his behalf, Santorum has the priceless gift of momentum on his side. When conservatives on caucus night are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, there’s only one candidate in the race with clear upward motion: Santorum.
The challenge for Santorum is to be able to translate success in Iowa into similar results in New Hampshire or South Carolina, where he has spent little time and has little organization in place. But if Santorum manages to make it out of Iowa with a finish that beats one or more of the supposed front-runners, supporters will look to his debating skills and potential appeal to solidly conservative primary states to carry him forward in a race against Romney.
“I think we’ll get a strong showing [in New Hampshire] and then go down to South Carolina and do even better. I think that would be the next good stop for us,” Santorum told reporters last week.
Before Rick Perry can conjure a path to the nomination, he needs to devise a rationale for why he should go forward after Iowa.
Increasingly, Perry’s campaign has the feel of Fred Thompson’s ill-fated bid – and not just because the Texas governor also took New Year’s Day off, as Thompson famously did here four years ago.
After entering to much hoopla and falling embarrassingly short of early expectations, Perry appears likely to also be left with the same decision Thompson had to make on caucus night: whether to fold up immediately or make a final stand in South Carolina.
The Texan has made clear that, while he’ll appear in the New Hampshire debates this weekend, “South Carolina is where our real focus will be,” as he put it Monday on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown.”
Yet to even make it to South Carolina, Perry needs to meet a threshold in the caucuses. He and his campaign have been unclear about what exactly that is. Some officials think he ought to get out if he can’t win the caucus-within-a-caucus against fellow conservatives Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. But with Santorum’s rise, others in Perryworld are recalibrating to suggest that a fourth place finish would be enough to stay in the race.
Perry himself predicted he’d be in the “top tier” on MSNBC and then clarified that he meant “the top four.”
So, effectively, the Perry case is that if he can defeat Gingrich here – which is what finishing fourth would take – he has a rationale to go forward because he has the organization and fundraising that Santorum lacks, enabling him to once against emerge as the conservative Mitt Romney alternative instead.
“I’m the only one of the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives that are running that actually has the ability to raise the money, to have the organization and to run through and finish the primary process,” he said on MSNBC. “Santorum and Bachmann don’t and so – we’re going to be able to go compete in South Carolina, in Florida and Nevada and obviously in Texas.”
The best-case scenario for Perry would be to take advantage of Ron Paul’s slippage and be a surprise third in the caucuses, survive a back-of-the-pack finish in New Hampshire and then rebound by winning South Carolina.
The difficulty for him is that such a scenario would turn history on its head: South Carolina has always ratified the establishment’s preferred candidate coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire. No Republican has won the Palmetto State without having previously captured a victory in one of the first two contests. Further, Perry would have to win South Carolina in a field that’s likely to include Gingrich, a surging Santorum and perhaps Bachmann, all appealing to conservatives there. It’s tough to win the state’s primary as a conservative if others on the right are splintering that support. Perry can ask Fred Thompson about that.
Newt Gingrich thinks there are more than three tickets out of Iowa and that, even if he doesn’t finish at the top of the pack, his candidacy will be able to hold on.
After being the subject of a barrage of attacks, he is setting expectations low for his performance in the Iowa caucuses – flatly saying Monday that he won’t win. He insists he won’t drop out even if he finishes fourth or fifth because he’s still holding a sizable lead in future states, like South Carolina.
South Carolina is likely to be the deciding factor in whether he can last past January. A strong performance in the Palmetto State could give him the momentum to continue to Super Tuesday. But a weak performance after similar results in the first two states would end his campaign.
His campaign is also looking at polls that show his supporters as less likely to change their mind and many voters listing him as being a second choice.
Best case scenario for Gingrich’s campaign is that Ron Paul starts to see his numbers fall and his supporters, particularly the older, more traditional Republicans, move to the former House speaker. Gingrich’s staff doesn’t think Paul supporters would move over to Romney.
Gingrich, who has been pushing his experience and conservative credentials, insists that Republican voters aren’t going to rally around “Massachusetts moderate” Romney. As the right-wing of the base continues to be fractured, Gingrich believes that, once voters see Romney performing well, evangelicals and traditional conservatives could solidify around one candidate. He still thinks that candidate can be him.
Of all the candidates coming out Iowa, it will take a caucus-night miracle for Michele Bachmann to vault forward.
The Minnesota congresswoman has gone from first place in the polls this summer, and winning the Ames Straw poll in August, to dead last in every recent Iowa survey. She’s also close to broke.
In order to continue a viable campaign, she will need a close fourth-place finish – a slot that’s already beyond the standard third ticket out of Iowa, but would be a surprisingly strong finish for her.
Bachmann also would have to finish ahead of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are in a fight for fourth place.
She would have to springboard from there immediately into South Carolina, and bypass New Hampshire almost entirely. Bachmann has already signaled she is doing just that and plans to head to the Palmetto State immediately after the caucuses.
But if she gets fourth place, Bachmann will have to work far more aggressively on the ground in South Carolina than she did in Iowa, where her 99-county tour had a frenetic, off-pace feel that left her little time to engage actual voters.
Bachmann also would need Rick Perry to crater in South Carolina, where he has a lot of resources.
In the meantime, Bachmann would have to start fundraising aggressively off of a fourth-place finish to start to refill her depleted coffers. That is no easy task. She would need to fire up an Internet fundraising base that has not been entirely reliable for her this cycle.
She would have to come in second place in South Carolina to have a chance to vault into Florida, where a tough time would await her, given the heavy reliance on television advertising and paid media in the populous, and huge, state. But a second-place finish in South Carolina would help her to be declared a momentum candidate and vault her into Florida.
Two words define Jon Huntsman’s 2012 strategy: New Hampshire. He’s betting his entire campaign on the state, and he’s had it largely to himself while his opponents duked it out in Iowa.
The Granite state’s open primary means independents can vote, and Huntsman has tailored his pitch accordingly. He’s talked up his moderate positions and his Yankee demeanor.
His best-case scenario is for Mitt Romney to underperform in Iowa and come out of the state bloodied. That would undercut the inevitability narrative and allow Huntsman to make a play for Romney supporters and independents who would otherwise veer toward his main rival in the final week.
Whoever finishes third behind Romney and Ron Paul in Iowa will emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney. If that person is a conservative like Rick Santorum, then Huntsman could win over voters who won’t go that far to the right but just don’t like Romney.
Huntsman has stepped up his attacks on Romney, trying to define him as unreliable and lacking a core. The pro-Huntsman Super PAC, Our Destiny, is helping with a $300,000 ad buy that urges voters in New Hampshire to “Stop the Chameleon.”
Also working in his favor: New Hampshire has a record of refusing to coronate front-runners. Just ask George W. Bush, who lost to John McCain by a shocking and unexpected 18 percentage points in 2000. In fact, no one in a competitive nominating contest has ever won Iowa and New Hampshire.
He draws many Democrats to his rallies too. He got the endorsement of the Concord Monitor, the left-leaning competitor to the arch-conservative Union Leader. Because there’s no Democratic race, left-leaning independents and disaffected Democrats who want to drop their registration could back him.
Huntsman has been polling in fourth place in New Hampshire, behind Romney, Paul and Gingrich. He suggested to The Associated Press this week that he’s likely to drop out if he finishes below third place.
If he outperforms expectations and finishes a strong third, though, he could stay in the race.
South Carolina also allows independents to vote in the primary. Though he would probably not be able to win there, a strong performance in the South could give him momentum to compete in Florida. He put his headquarters in the Sunshine State this spring when it looked like he could be a top-tier contender but relocated it to New Hampshire in the fall after he failed to take off. His wife also is from there, and someone with a moderate’s issue profile could outperform.
From Florida – if somehow a very conservative candidate has overtaken Romney and the others have dropped out, or if Romney is the only other one standing – Huntsman could emerge as the alternative. That, of course, is a stretch. And, at that point, he’d struggle to compete organizationally and financially.