It’s finally here! After months of debates, polls, town halls, bubbles, collapses, and plenty of idle speculation along the way, voters in Iowa will finally pick their favorite Republican candidate today. Who will win? Nobody’s sure — the polling data is way too close to call with Romney looking strong, Ron Paul holding steady, and Rick Santorum coming up fast from behind. And there’s still plenty of room for some of the dark horse candidates like Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich to sneak into the top tier. With so much up in the air, let’s take a look at where some possible scenarios might leave the race heading into New Hampshire.
Mitt Romney Wins
After failing to gain traction for months, Romney is finally leading polls at exactly the right time in Iowa. He’s essentially tied with Ron Paul, and there’s a fast-rising Rick Santorum right behind them, so a victory will be tough, but if he can pull it off it’s hard to see how he loses the nomination. Even a second or third place finish puts him in a strong position. He’s dominant in New Hampshire already and would enter with a wave of momentum and positive coverage. If one of his rivals could stop him with surprisingly big victories in both South Carolina and Florida, they might be able to keep him from running away with it early. But they will likely have to overcome a rush from the GOP establishment to crown him fast.
Rick Santorum Wins
Rick Santorum’s entire strategy has centered on winning Iowa — he’s spent way, way, more time there than any other candidate — and he’s finally starting to see some payoff for his strategy. But even if he wins, there’s still the question of where he goes next. He’s planning to run ads in South Carolina and he’s made tons of visits to New Hampshire, but he’ll be essentially building his support from scratch — our latest TPM Polling Average puts him at about 3% in both SC and NH. Because his surge was so late in the game, he also hasn’t faced the withering attack ads and debate pile-ons that have brought down many of the other Cinderella candidates. On the flipside, if Santorum can’t place in the top three, there will be a lot of pressure to drop out.
Ron Paul Wins It
Unlike several of the other candidates competing in Iowa, Ron Paul actually polls pretty well in New Hampshire, so he could put the boost of an Iowa victory to good use right away. But Paul is, to put it mildly, an unlikely nominee — he has a fanatically loyal core of supporters but his views on a number of crucial issues are far from the GOP mainstream and he still hasn’t put to bed a firestorm over his more fringe views, associates, and supporters. The most likely result of a Paul win is to boost Romney’s chances by sucking the oxygen away from his more dangerous competitors.
Rick Perry Beats Expectations
A surprise top three finish for Perry may be Romney’s nightmare scenario. Perry and the independent Super PAC supporting his candidacy have the cash to fight a serious air war beyond Iowa and if the early primaries end up knocking out several of his lesser funded rivals, he could make a credible run at consolidating support as the anti-Romney. You might think an ultra-conservative Texas governor would have a good shot at South Carolina, but Perry’s polling there is awful at the moment. If Gingrich’s collapse spreads there, however, that could open up a lot of friendly voters. That said, Perry’s campaign doesn’t exactly sound too confident in a big Iowa showing — they’re already pointing fingers in the press over who’s to blame for his mostly disastrous effort so far.
Newt Gingrich Wins It
Here’s another relatively scary possibility for Romney. Despite being battered every which way by attack ads in Iowa, Gingrich still polls extremely well in South Carolina and — although there’s little in the way of recent polling — once held huge leads in Florida too. While an Iowa win would help revive his flagging campaign, he could get tripped up by the same problem he’s had in that state so far: Romney’s money. It doesn’t help that he isn’t even on the ballot in VIrginia, one of the key Super Tuesday states.
Michele Bachmann Comes Back From The Dead
If this happens, it will be completely out of left field. Her campaign has been in disarray ever since her high point at the Ames Straw Poll in August as her poll numbers have deflated like a shoddily prepared soufflé. Bachmann has little to no appeal in New Hampshire and will be starved for resources to continue the fight, so she’s not likely much of a threat to Romney even if she improbably places in the top three. But given how important Iowa has been to her campaign, don’t be surprised if she drops out immediately if she doesn’t have a surprise breakout performance.
Jon Huntsman Wins
Hell freezing over and plague of flying pigs will be Romney’s bigger concerns in this scenario.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.