The race for the Republican presidential nomination has certainly been anything but dull this year. Every time you turn around, it seems another name pops up as the alternative to Mitt Romney.
I treated this satirically last week, with a suggestion that the seven major Republican candidates band together and run as "Anybody But Romney, Incorporated," so if you're not in the mood for a sober analysis of the Republican field today, I suggest you read last Monday's column instead.
I've been viewing the Republican field so far as a national contest, taking into account their standings in national polls of Republican primary voters. But, as we all know, primaries are not national, they are state-by-state. Meaning we must transition from surveying national standings to looking at the state polls in the first primary states. Before we do this, a final wrapup (as things stand today -- although these have been so volatile that we'll doubtlessly mention them in the weeks to come if they radically change) of the national standings is in order.
Using the divisions previously drawn (see last month's column, for comparison), the same two candidates remain "dark horses" -- Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. You have to feel a certain amount of pity for Santorum, as he is the only "real conservative" in the race who has not, so far, enjoyed a bounce to the top of the polls. I mean, he's got nice hair, he's rabidly right-wing... what's not to love? Santorum's campaign must be wondering exactly why their candidate hasn't taken a ride on the "flavor of the month" rollercoaster yet. Whatever the reason, neither Santorum nor Huntsman has a prayer of winning either the nomination or any individual primary, and we fully expect they'll drop out of the race either just after Iowa, or possibly New Hampshire.
The "B Team" nationally includes Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry. Any of them could spike up in the polls at any time (if recent history is any indication), but for now all three remain far below double digits in the polling averages.
There are now three "frontrunners" nationally: Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Cain has been falling out of favor for the past few weeks, and Gingrich has rocketed up in the polls. Romney, as always, has stayed pretty steadily where he's always been, between 20 and 25 percent.
But let's take a closer look at the first two primary states, since they'll be make-or-break states for so many of these candidates. The electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire isn't quite the same as the national Republican primary base, so there are a few shifts on the state level.
RealClearPolitics current Iowa poll standings has Gingrich in the lead, followed closely by Cain, who is followed closely by Romney. Gingrich's lead, however, is mostly due to a single overwhelmingly good poll from Rasmussen, which gave Gingrich 32 percent to Cain's 13 percent and Romney's 19 percent. Ron Paul is doing well in Iowa, and appears to be solidly in fourth place -- with much better polling than he achieves nationally. Perry has all but dropped from sight, and Bachmann is also down in the single digits.
Iowa may be the breaking point for Bachmann. She has placed all her chips on the state, figuring she has the best chance here, since she was born in Iowa and lives only one state away. When even this proves not to be enough for her to chalk up a "top four" finish (or even "top five") in the state, Bachmann will likely pull the plug on her campaign. She knows New Hampshire voters aren't going to be kind to her, so there will be no reason for her to stay in after Iowa. Huntsman's got a better chance in New Hampshire, so he may wait it out, but Santorum could drop out after Iowa as well. Perry will likely have enough money to continue on even after a very poor showing in Iowa.
While the voting may be very close in Iowa, the placement of the top three will be extremely important -- even if the difference between first and second is only a percentage point or two. Iowa is a caucus state, which puts a premium on the fervency of your supporters, so even Ron Paul could surprise many by a strong showing here (possibly even gaining third place).
What will be interesting to see, over the next month or so, is who gets attacked the most. Will Newt be the prime target? There are certainly plenty of issues conservatives can slam Newt on, but will they? Romney has taken an "I don't care" attitude towards Iowa, meaning even if he came in third here, it won't affect how he's going to run the rest of his campaign much. If Cain and Newt are in first and second place, that will shock a lot of people and give a boost to their fundraising going forward. But if Romney pulls out a first or even second place win here, it could cripple the third-place finisher in a big way.
New Hampshire Republican voters are more interested in fiscal conservatism than social issues, meaning a very different mix than the Iowa caucus attendees.
Mitt Romney will likely be the dominant winner in New Hampshire. Massachusetts, after all, is right next door to the Granite State, meaning the voters here know Romney much better than they do the rest of the field. This is evident in the polling, where Romney currently holds a double-digit lead over the rest of the pack.
But the last poll surely must be worrisome for the Romney team, because Newt Gingrich rose from nowhere to fall only two points behind Romney (29 to 27 percent). A poll taken four days earlier had Romney at 40 percent, and Gingrich at only 11 percent, by way of comparison. It wouldn't surprise me to see Romney run a few ads in New Hampshire reminding them of Newt's baggage, before New Hampshire gets to vote.
Running a steady third in New Hampshire is none other than Ron Paul. Paul's libertarian streak plays well up here, and he could even conceivably gain second place, when all the votes are counted (if Cain stays down and Newt has a falling off). This may, in other words, be the high point in the entire campaign season for Ron Paul.
Herman Cain may be lucky to wrest third place away from either Gingrich or Paul here, and if he can't manage to do that, he may not be taken very seriously from this point forward (depending on his position in Iowa, as well). New Hampshire may also be the effective end of the road for Perry, especially if the highest he places in either Iowa or New Hampshire is fifth (or even sixth). He may have the money to continue his campaign further, but there won't be much point. New Hampshire may be a bright spot for Huntsman (if he's still in the race), but even still, his campaign will soon fold, because fifth place in one primary is simply not enough to keep going.
Whatever the outcome of Iowa and New Hampshire, we should have a reduced field for the next phase of the primary season: Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida. But those possibilities will have to wait until the next time we take a look at the Republican primary field.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant