I realize everyone is probably already sick of hearing predictions about the Iowa Republican caucuses, and if this does indeed describe you then you should probably go watch a football game or something -- because that's exactly what we're going to do today: throw prognosticatory Hawkeye darts at the wall, and take our chances as we may.
There's another sports reference worth mentioning, before we get started here. Sports guys love "stats." They love being able to quantify everything into discrete numbers so it's easy to see who is "best" and who is "worst" and everything in between. Even the sports pundits -- they'll make their predictions about which teams are going to win, and then tally up who got the most right. Personally, I think this is a practice which needs to carry over to the political chattering-class world as well. Pundits on television and in print should put their records up for public viewing, so that people can decide for themselves how much weight to give to future predictions by each of these political wonks.
So before we begin with the 2012 election cycle, here are my stats for the last time we danced this particular jig:
[Final 2008 Primary Pick Stats]
Total correct 2008 Democratic picks: 43 for 60 -- 72%
Total correct 2008 Republican picks: 37 for 50 -- 74%
Total overall correct picks: 80 for 110 -- 73%.
While these numbers admittedly look pretty good, this was due in part to the later races being somewhat easier to call. I did better predicting Republican contests, and my average never fell below 60 percent correct on the GOP side. On the Democratic side, I started only picking 2 of the first 6 in Iowa and New Hampshire (picking top three slots in both states), and then fell to 2 in 9 after missing Nevada entirely, a low point of only 22 percent correct.
The rules I set for myself to play this game are somewhat arbitrary. For the first contests, I pick the top three winners. From Super Tuesday on, I just pick the winner in each state (as the field narrows, it's not fair to count calling first and second place in a two-man race as two correct picks, in other words). And then at some point, the nominee becomes so obvious that the game isn't worth playing any more, because it's so easy to predict what is going to happen.
In 2008, I was (of course) calling every single Democratic primary through the entire marathon season, right up to the last two in June. On the Republican side, my last picks were for "Crab Cake Tuesday" (D.C., Maryland, Virginia; in mid-February), because after that point McCain was set to run the rest of the table.
This year, of course, we won't even be playing the game on the Democratic side, because President Barack Obama has not drawn a primary challenger with any sort of chance of defeating him. So we'll only be offering up picks for the Republican side all year, until we get to the general election. So, let's wipe the slate clean, dust off the crystal ball, and dive right in to the 2012 election cycle!
First Place -- Ron Paul
Second Place -- Rick Santorum
Third Place -- Mitt Romney
I'm going to go somewhat out on a limb, here, and predict Ron Paul walks away the winner. The polls show he's been slipping slightly this past week, probably due to attacks on his foreign policy and the media digging up the old newsletters which went out under his name.
But Iowa is all about who turns out, and how committed to their candidate everyone proves to be. Ron Paul, in my estimation, has the most-committed voters, and the ones most likely to turn out in big numbers. If the weather is bad, Ron Paul might do better than people expect, but even without a blizzard, I think Ron Paul voters are going to attend the caucus in surprisingly large numbers -- and I just don't see many of them changing their votes at the last minute.
Plus, I would dearly love to see the egg all over the mainstream media's face if Paul does win -- but I don't think this personal consideration enters into my calculations (much).
Rick Santorum's last-minute surge is impressive, because all along I've wondered why he hasn't been on the merry-go-round of "flavor of the week" in Iowa. He's conservative as all get-out, he's telegenic enough, and he doesn't seem prone to opening his mouth and having stupid or shocking things (to the average conservative voter, mind you) come out of it. But, up until last week, he had missed his chance in the frontrunner spot.
Santorum is lucky he was last, in a big way. Because his surge happened so close to the actual caucuses, his opponents have not had time to fling mud at him. Virtually every "not Romney" frontrunner that has appeared so far has been shot down by negative ads, but since nobody saw the Santorum surge coming, nobody had anti-Santorum ads ready to flood the airwaves. This will change, if Santorum does well in Iowa, but for now he's got a pretty clear field.
Due to the complex nature of the caucuses, many voters' second choices will come into play. So the question becomes: where do voters for Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann go to if their first pick doesn't make the cut? Some may move to Ron Paul, just to make a point to the Republican establishment. Some may go to Mitt Romney, who has been a lot of people's second choice all along. But socially conservative voters for Perry and Bachmann may well see Santorum as being closer, politically and philosophically, to their favored candidate.
Which is why I'm predicting Mitt will have to settle for a disappointing third place. Although I only "officially" call the top three, I think Newt Gingrich will be fourth, virtually tied with Rick Perry. Looking forward, I think Michelle Bachmann will be the first to drop out of the race, after she comes in sixth place in Iowa. Jon Huntsman will be the next to go, likely after New Hampshire, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.
So, for Iowa: Paul, Santorum, Romney, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, Huntsman. Those are my picks, what are yours?
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant