With less than three weeks to go until Iowa, it’s time to take a quick snapshot of the Presidential race.
The Boucher unifying theory of the Presidential nominating process holds that in every cycle there is a “Front Runner”, an “Ideologue” and a “Life Raft”.
The Front Runner (usually the proverbial “next guy in line”) emerges in mid-summer as the favorite. He then spends the fall slowly losing support as the electorate flirts with other candidates.
The Ideologue is the bomb-throwing purist who inspires the base… until he scares off the pundits, party leaders and pragmatic voters who are worried about “electability”.
Of course, the rise (and eventual fall) of the Ideologue comes at the expense of the biggest target, the Front Runner, and so the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire sometimes panic and grasp around for the least controversial candidate still in the race. That’s the Life Raft. (Think: John Kerry in 2004 after Howard Dean torched the field – and himself.)
Usually the Front Runner ends up holding on. Sometimes the Life Raft gets the nomination. Very, very rarely does the ideologue get the nomination.
(An easy case study is 2008: Romney was the favorite going into Iowa, Huckabee was the Ideologue, and the Life Raft – John McCain – won the nomination.)
So where do we stand right now?
Romney remains the Front Runner. It’s good to be the Front Runner, and Romney’s support has remained fairly solid – a positive sign.
Gingrich currently holds on to the position of Ideologue, a position he won after Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain all had their moments in the spotlight (more on them in a minute.)
Huntsman is setting himself up as the Life Raft. If Romney is somehow mortally wounded in Iowa, don’t count out Huntsman to emerge in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire.
Ron Paul is Ron Paul.*
So now, three weeks out from the Iowa Caucuses, the questions are:
Can Newt Gingrich hold on to his base of conservative support for another three weeks? Probably not at the current levels, but voters like Newt at a visceral level. They like his combativeness.
He’s not an unknown in the way that Perry, Bachmann and Cain were when they shot to the top of the polls, and so no matter what happens in the next few weeks, while Gingrich will lose some support, enough of his current supporters have already made peace with his negatives. He’s not going to drop into the single digits, and he’s probably in for the long haul. (Actually the best corollary to the Newt phenomenon might just be Huckabee. Voters liked his personality, his demeanor and his delivery and were willing to overlook his less-than-conservative positions on the issues. He captured the mood of the 2008 electorate and was able to stay in the race until the end. The mood of the electorate in 2012? They’re looking for a candid fighter who can stand up to Obama next fall.)
If Newt loses some support over the next few weeks, where does it go? Well, let’s assume that the “former-Newt” voters will be comprised of two groups: Those who are worried about Gingrich’s electability, and those who don’t like his positions on specific issues.
Voters who are focused on electability will probably end up in the Romney camp.
But the big story that will emerge in the next few weeks will be written by the voters who caucus based on their own litmus tests of conservative issues. Assuming they find Gingrich lacking, they need to go somewhere. Either Santorum, Bachmann or Perry will make a run in the next 20 days. Santorum has the advantage of being relatively undamaged (and he’s built tremendous goodwill on the ground in Iowa.) Bachmann can make the case that she’s the most consistent on the litmus test issues of the Tea Party era. And Perry has a lot of money (although his big buys over the past few weeks in South Carolina haven’t moved the dial.)
There will be four tickets out of Iowa: Romney, Gingrich, Ron Paul and Santorum/Bachmann/Perry.
We still have a long, long way to go.
* As for Ron Paul… Jack Hunter put it best recently when he declared that Ron Paul is redefining for the next generation what it means to be a Republican. Hunter (who works for Paul but is a great pundit in his own right) compared the youth-driven Ron Paul movement to the Goldwater insurrection within the GOP in 1964 (which was also very youth-driven.) In other words, future candidates should take notice. All of those twentysomethings who are flocking to the Ron Paul campaign are going to be in charge of the party in 12-16 years.