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Iowa Caucus Eve: Assessing the State of Play

Happy New Year from Des Moines, Iowa!  It's been a long, protracted slog, but actual Republican voters will finally begin to cast ballots in the 2012 GOP nominating contest here in Iowa tomorrow evening.  How the final tally will shake out remains anyone's guess, but numerous polls -- several of which have been flagged by my colleagues in Tipsheet posts and over at our must-see Polltracker -- provide some meaningful clues:


Mitt Romney sits (barely) atop multiple Iowa surveys, despite the fact that he's invested far less time, energy, and resources in the Hawkeye State than he did in the 2007-08 cycle.  His residual contacts and logistical organization could be very significant here; only a relative handful of the state's three million residents will actually participate in tomorrow evening's festivities, so a crucial element of winning the game is identifying and turning out committed supporters.  Team Romney and supportive Super PACs have been on the air for weeks here, running positive spots as well as effective ads slamming Newt Gingrich and President Obama.  If it's an electoral logjam near the top tomorrow, and on-the-ground organization ends up proving decisive, Romney could very well win the state -- setting himself up very nicely for next week's New Hampshire primary.  If Romney doesn't pull out the victory tomorrow, expect to hear a lot of "marathon vs. sprint" analogies from his supporters.  Don't laugh: Slow and steady really could win the race this year.

Ron Paul's success in Iowa is attributable to his vast network of organized, enthusiastic and extremely loyal supporters.  Like Romney, Paul put down campaign markers here four years ago, a reality that lends him a distinct edge over the competition.  The final Des Moines Register poll (widely viewed as the most important survey in the state) suggested that Paul's Iowa surge may be ebbing -- perhaps a sign that general awareness of controversies regarding his newsletters and other conspiratorial indulgences have begun to take root.  A top-three finish is expected.

Rick Santorum has practically lived in Iowa for the better part of a year.  He's focused virtually all of his attention here, and that commitment seems to be paying off at precisely the right time.  The Newt storm is slowly subsiding, and Rick Perry's scrappy comeback attempt hasn't quite broken through, and Santorum is reaping the benefits.  He's husbanded his limited resources until now -- a product of necessity, not strategy -- but the timing couldn't have been much better.  He's seized momentum just as he's begun running his first TV ads in the state.  The DMR poll shows a clear upward trajectory for the former Pennsylvania Senator, and it's more than plausible that he could shock the world with a top-two finish.  Santorum may not have the funds or infrastructure of the Romney and Paul campaigns, but I'd wager that he's visited more Iowa towns and shaken more caucus-goers' hands than anyone else in this race, with the possible exception of Michele Bachmann.  Success breeds success, so a strong finish tomorrow would be a boon to the campaign's already-improving fundraising.  A big question remains: Even if Surgetorum plays itself out with a heartland upset tomorrow, will Santorum have the money, infrastructure, or natural constituencies to effectively compete in upcoming early state contests? 

Newt Gingrich's prospects in Iowa are fading fast, and he's the first to admit it.  Newt is preemptively blaming a potentially disappointing Iowa finish on (1) "Romney-boating," and (2) his own dadgummed reasonableness -- but his troubles here spill beyond that narrative.  Newt has been pummeled with negative press from major conservative pundits and has endured a harsh lashing on the airwaves from all of his top rivals.  Even if Newt were still among the top three in the final batch of polls (he's slipped to fourth in most), questions about his on-the-ground organization persist.  His campaign didn't have any significant presence here until December, when they installed their first telephone.  Gingrich's problem is that even at its peak, his support in Iowa was a mile wide, but an inch deep.  His erstwhile supporters appear to be peeling off and defecting to the competition (mostly Santorum and Perry, based on conversations I've had with voters here).

Rick Perry seemed to be building some real momentum in Iowa when I was here before Christmas.  While his standing has certainly improved from its post-implosion nadir, it seems the 'big rebound' hasn't fully materialized -- a fact for which Rick Santorum is mighty thankful.  That said, unless Perry tumbles into the bottom tier tomorrow night, which seems unlikely, his camp has the financial and organizational wherewithal to keep on plugging.  His reported strategy was to bounce from Iowa directly to South Carolina, where he announced his presidential campaign last summer.  This seems like a sensible move, although reports are surfacing that Perry intends to campaign in New Hampshire after all.  If true, that strategy would strike me as a curious use of the candidate's time, in light of his "abysmal" favorablity numbers in the Granite State.

Michele Bachmann, whether she wants to openly admit it or not, she is making her last stand in Iowa.  This is her home turf, and if she can't even crack the upper echelon in a state where she's spent huge amounts of time and money (remember, she won the Ames straw poll in August), I can't see any path to victory for her.  Even though she's slipped dramatically in state and national polls polls, she's going down fighting.  Over the last several weeks, she's barnstormed across the state, visiting all 99 Iowa counties -- and hasn't shied away from plunking down the gender card along the way.  If Bachmann finishes poorly tomorrow and presses on to South Carolina as she's already vowing to do, that decision will only serve to further dilute and disperse the conservative vote.  You know who that would helpHmm.

Jon Huntsman will not be a factor in Iowa, as his entire focus has been on New Hampshire for months.  Huntsman even demonstrated a willingness to denigrate Iowans in order to pander to New Hampshire voters: "They pick corn in Iowa; they pick presidents in New Hampshire," he told CBS News last week.  Ouch.  Hello, last place.


The Wildcard in all of this is the continuation of a distinct trend I noticed when I was here a few weeks ago: Widespread indecision.  Many Iowans who plan to participate in tomorrow's voting still say they might change their mind about whom to support between now and then.  That adds up to a stunning degree of volatility.  The final DMR poll showed that 41 percent of likely caucus-goers put themselves in that category, which is why the punditry, predictions and polls may not amount to a hill of beans by the time the final results are tabulated. 

2012 has arrived, and it's on! 


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