Monday, January 2, 2012

Timing the jump ball:
The runup to the Iowa caucuses


They might as well call it a dead heat on a roller coaster: The mainstream media has coalesced around the idea, well supported in the polls, that the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday will secure three candidates at the top of the leaderboard. But some in the media are only now coming around both to the fact of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s upward trajectory and the propellant for that trajectory: an embrace of traditional retail politics.

In some polls, there’s an absolute zero-sum-game deal happening. As Paul has shed support over the last few weeks, Santorum has increased his support by more or less the same amount. Case in point: the latest poll from the Des Moines Register, three days out from the caucuses, finds that over the last week, Paul lost 13 percentage points while Santorum picked up 10.

And then there’s the real X factor: According to the Register poll, 41 percent of Iowans are still undecided about how they’ll decide on Tuesday, many of them, no doubt, willing to be persuaded — or not — at the caucuses themselves.



The phrase “jump ball” gets used a lot in American politics (especially since the Baller in Chief took possession in the White House), and the punditburo has used the phrase to describe what’s shaping up in Iowa.

The case can be made, though, that Iowa will rise to its customary status — like the farmers that inhabit the Hawkeye State, sorting wheat from chaff — but in ways that few will expect. The jump ball we’re anticipating may not be as close as we think.

On Tuesday, we may see Iowans not wait for the candidates to winnow themselves from the field. Iowans may do it for them pre-emptively, and in a surprising revision of expected numbers that reshapes the arc of an already problematically riotous Republican presidential campaign.

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for a while someone who seemed to have written off Iowa, or at least conceded the likelihood of a middling finish, has lately been making winner noises. The candidate, never less than animated, has a recharged physicality, propulsive and a little over the top at times, like Broderick Crawford playing Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men.” It’s in the service of a confidence reflecting the campaign’s own internal polling and some public opinion polls that show Romney leading.

But Romney’s rate of climb has slowed in recent weeks; Santorum has been the latest beneficiary of levitation; unlike the others, though, his has been more organic, a result of time on the ground. Thanks to a Republican base that’s ever-grumbling about capturing lightning-in-a-bottle with a candidate who can inspire the conservative ranks, Santorum is beginning to get the side-eye of serious appraisal from voters hungry for credibility, geniality and philosophical fidelity. The numbers that have been trending upward for Santorum for the better part of a week tell the story: Here’s someone we can maybe believe in.

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In this sense, if Santorum wins, Iowans would be pushing back against the conventional wisdom that Santorum’s couch-cushion-cash campaign can’t hope to prevail against the Romney cash-flow juggernaut, or other campaigns with deep pockets (Texas Gov. Rick Perry) or solid ground game and ardent supporters (like Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who was surging himself until very recently). There’s a handsome, rugged, underdog mien to the Santorum campaign, and to the candidate himself. It makes for campaign optics that appear to dovetail with the state’s rural traditions and plain-spoken style. He’s got the Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda end of this thing nailed down, for now.

Iowa’s caucus results could push back on expectation in a scenario that favors Santorum. Iowa voters, stung by the flyover sensibilities of some campaigns who’ve characterized their candidates’ more infrequent appearances in the state as “strategic,” might be expected to give a little extra weight to the candidate who put in the months-long face time required to visit every county in the state: Rick Santorum.

They may well resist the idea of establishing a campaign constituency with news reports, online videos and staff surrogates instead of the old-fashioned way: the candidate on the streets, in the diners, at the gates of the plant, in each and every place where people live their lives. The way Santorum has been reaching out to them for months.

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Clearly, then, the door’s open for a surprise that might not be so surprising at all. A Santorum win, which I’m inclined to expect, would resonate in the other primary states regardless of the size of the win. But if it happens, the caucus results can be expected to indicate wholesale defections from the Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry and Paul campaigns as Iowa voters ask themselves which of the candidates best and consistently mirrors their values and (the Electability thing) reflects what the modern GOP stands for in its best light. The beneficiary of that reassessment would be Rick Santorum.

The consistently fractured field that many in the media are expecting may yet continue: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has already announced plans to continue beyond Iowa, regardless of the outcome. Other campaigns can similarly be expected to throw good money after bad.

But regardless of what’s decided in later primaries, Iowa will have taken a stand for thinning the herd, and attention will be paid by other voters in other states on the primary calendar between now and Super Tuesday in March. And it may be that the same evangelicals who’d been in Michele Bachmann’s flailing corner or Gingrich’s; the conservative voters who’ve decided that Perry’s campaign is at best a well-funded but haphazardly-managed work in progress; the voters who come to the conclusion that Paul’s embrace of the politically impractical makes him politically unelectable, are giving their collective chins a strong pull and asking a question that was, a month ago, unthinkable: Why not Santorum?

A wholly unscientific forecast, then, cobbled together from an average of recent Iowa poll results, an expectation of surprise for reasons here and previously explained, and numbers that just … feel right:

Santorum 33
Romney 25
Paul 16
Perry 11
Bachmann 7
Gingrich 6
Jon Huntsman 2

In this jump-ball situation, Santorum may have the advantage of vertical reach, and timing his jump just right. We’ll see on Tuesday.

Image credits: All images: CNN.

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