As we approach the eve of the Iowa caucus, the broad outlines of the GOP race remains what it has been from the beginning: Mitt Romney is doing well among less conservative/non-Tea Party voters while the more conservative voters have not coalesced around any alternative to Romney. And contrary to the impression of some, Romney is not deeply disliked by most conservative voters. He may not be their first choice, but he’s done more than enough to make him acceptable to most Republicans. Governor Romney may not inspire passionate support on the right, but neither does he inspire passionate opposition.
Beyond that, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out that since 1980, no Republican (in a contested race) has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. In fact, the pattern has been the same: one candidate wins in Iowa, another wins in New Hampshire, and one of those two wins in South Carolina– and, eventually, the nomination.
To briefly review the history: In 1980, Ronald Reagan lost in Iowa (to George H.W. Bush), won in New Hampshire, and won in South Carolina. In 1988, George H.W. Bush lost in Iowa (to Robert Dole), won in New Hampshire, and won in South Carolina. In 1996, Bob Dole won in Iowa, lost in New Hampshire (to Pat Buchanan), and won in South Carolina. In 2000, George W. Bush won in Iowa, lost in New Hampshire (to John McCain), and won in South Carolina. And in 2008, John McCain lost in Iowa (to Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney), won in New Hampshire, and won in South Carolina. All of which means that if Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has a significant lead right now (nearly 20 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average), it’s hard to see how he would lose the nomination, particularly given his enormous advantages in money and organization.
The board can still be scrambled, of course. It was only two weeks ago, after all, when Newt Gingrich was ahead by double digits in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida and was closing in on Romney in New Hampshire. This led Gingrich to tell ABC’s Jake Tapper, ”It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.” But Gingrich’s support in Iowa and New Hampshire looks to be collapsing (by some counts he’s lost 20 points in 20 days). Romney’s team surely knows if the former Massachusetts governor can win in Iowa– and right now he leads Ron Paul in some polls and trails him in others –the outcome of this race may be decided almost as soon as it began. If so, it would be a remarkable achievement by Romney.
Caveats are important to insert. There are a dozen other scenarios one can imagine. Not a single vote has yet been cast in this election. There are huge numbers of undecided voters. And proportional representation can string things out. But this much is clear: only five days away from the Iowa caucus, Mitt Romney is in the catbird seat.