What if the current polls in Iowa are the final result? What if Romney wins in Iowa and then comes in first again in New Hampshire? What if Giuliani stumbles badly in Iowa and finishes fourth? What if Huckabee surges and finishes second in Iowa? What if Fred Thompson makes an unimp ressive third-place finish there?
And, on the Democratic side, what if Hillary only narrowly beats Obama in the first caucus state?
With two months to go before the Iowa caucus, everything can change, and probably will, but it is worth speculating on what the impact will be if things don’t change much from now until then.
On the Republican side, a Romney victory in Iowa would virtually guarantee a win in New Hampshire. The two states, in media terms, are practically one. Two-thirds of New Hampshire lives in the southern part of the state that watches Boston television every night. Since Romney served as governor in Massachusetts, he will probably win New Hampshire anyway. A win in Iowa would make it a fait accompli.
Two victories would make Romney the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Coupled with a Giuliani stumble in Iowa, it could totally change the dynamic of the Republican primary. Here’s what might happen:
Rudy could come to be seen as too antagonistic to the Christian right, and moderates might once again turn to McCain as the less inflammatory option, sidetracking the former New York mayor.
Huckabee, coming in a strong second, could take off and become the poor man’s Romney, taking advantage of his greater consistency on social issues, his Christian (read: non-Mormon) beliefs, and his support of the Fair Tax as an alternative to the IRS.
Republicans would likely panic about the idea of a Mormon candidate and worry about his prospects, making Huckabee and either Rudy or McCain viable as alternatives.
Thompson will be forced out, having lost his position as the socially conservative answer to Rudy.
And on the Democratic side, Edwards, who had been leading in Iowa until recently, would probably have to leave the race. That would coalesce the entire ABH vote (Anybody But Hillary) around Obama, giving him a leg up in the national race.
Hillary’s vulnerability, newly revealed in the Io wa vote, could create a sense that she might not be electable given her baggage and lead Democratic voters to look seriously at Obama. The result could be a real slugfest between the two candidates, making a mockery of the idea that her nomination is inevitable.
And the outcome? Hillary probably still wins. The history of Democratic primaries has always been that challengers emerge and run stronger than anyone believed they would but then fade and the front-runner prevails after all (see Bradley in 2000, Tsongas after New Hampshire and Brown after Connecticut in 1992, Gore after the Southern primaries in 1988, Hart in 1984 and Kennedy in 1980).
And among the Republicans? Who knows? The race would be thrown into chaos. Anyone could win. Romney would have the momentum, but doubts about his ability to win as a Mormon would make his lead unstable. Huckabee would be gaining, but he may not be well enough known to make it. Giuliani could still recover, given his strong national standing, but would be hobbled. And McCain would still have his immigration position hanging over his head, but as Rudy falters, he might pick up the slack.
Then again, Hillary could open up a large lead in Iowa as her juggernaut gets going. And Rudy could, at least, finish a strong second to Romney in Iowa, and perhaps beat him, making it a Giuliani-Romney runoff in the main primaries, which Rudy probably wins. Then the general election match-up would be Hillary vs. Rudy, as we have all anticipated.
But what if?