The Iowa Caucuses are finally here and late polling shows that tonight’s result may be inconclusive. Several surveys forecast a very tight race among Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX-14), and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who appears to be surging at precisely the right time. The attacks on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have worked as his fortunes are declining to the point where even he says victory at the Caucuses is beyond his grasp. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN-6) are hovering around the 10 percent mark, but do not appear to be in serious contention.
Still, a bunching of these candidates where the winner is only a few points ahead of those in the middle of the pack will render the Iowa Caucus vote somewhat meaningless because it is likely that the entire field will continue to New Hampshire (Jan. 10), South Carolina (Jan. 21), and then to Florida (Jan. 31) and Nevada (Feb. 4).
Here are the results of the latest polls:
• Insider Advantage (Jan. 1: 729 likely voters): Romney 23 percent, Paul 22 percent, Santorum 18 percent, Gingrich 16 percent, Perry 10 percent, Bachmann 6 percent.
• Public Policy Polling (Dec. 31-Jan. 1; 1,340 likely Republican Caucus attenders): Paul 20 percent, Romney 19 percent, Santorum 18 percent, Gingrich 14 percent, Perry 10 percent, Bachmann 8 percent.
• American Research Group (Dec. 29-Jan. 1; 600 likely Republican Caucus attenders): Romney 22 percent, Paul 17 percent, Santorum 16 percent, Gingrich 15 percent, Perry 9 percent, Bachmann 8 percent.
• Selzer & Company for the Des Moines Register (Dec. 27-30; 602 likely GOP Caucus attenders): Romney 24 percent, Paul 22 percent, Santorum 15 percent, Gingrich 12 percent, Perry 11 percent, Bachmann 7 percent.
Several points merit attention. First, should Mr. Romney finish ahead of his opponents, he will become the first non-incumbent Republican to ever win both the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary, assuming he is not surprised there next week. Polling shows him holding consistently large leads in the Granite State. Winning the first two nominating events would give him needed momentum heading into South Carolina, which is clearly his weakest state. He will then need to rebound in Florida (possible) and Nevada (likely) to possibly deliver a knockout blow to some of the weaker candidates.
Second, it’s possible that Rep. Paul is under-performing in polling because the surveys do not accurately detect the number of non-Republicans who could come to the Caucus meetings for the purposes of switching to the GOP in order to participate in the presidential contest. Paul’s strength outside the Republican Party is an x-factor that could provide him enough of an added push for him to claim victory.
Third, it is clear that Santorum is gaining momentum but probably not enough to actually win the Caucuses. Still, a strong top-three finish will definitely keep his campaign alive through at least South Carolina, another state where he has the potential to perform well.
After more than a year of campaigning and enduring countless twists and turns, the first votes of the 2012 presidential contest finally will be cast tonight. The apparent closeness of the Iowa vote will likely yield to a lengthy nomination contest since all of the candidates will move on to other states. With more places holding their primaries and caucuses on a more traditional schedule vis-a-vis the front-loading that occurred in 2008, it is likely that we won’t see a definitive nominee until at least late April and possibly beyond.