I’m a little frustrated that the calendar of Republican primaries and caucuses is still so uncertain. It makes it impossible to try to game out how the nominating contest might unfold. I like Nate Silver’s piece on the Perry-Romney dynamic in the early states, but I’d like to be able to roll it forward with more confidence. All we know with any degree of confidence is that Iowa will go first and be followed by New Hampshire, and then by South Carolina and Nevada (the last two, possibly on the same day). I don’t want to discuss why things are so unsettled, but it probably won’t surprise you that Florida is at fault.

In any case, I don’t think anyone thinks that Mitt Romney is going to win the Iowa Caucuses, and that’s why Romney isn’t seriously competing there. It’s like when you know you girlfriend is going to break up with you. You break up with her first, or you act like you really don’t care. I’ve never known that strategy to be particularly convincing, but I also don’t think Romney has a better alternative.

What Nate wants to know is if anyone will want to date Romney in New Hampshire after he’s been dumped in the Hawkeye State. The problem is that if a conservative (right now, most likely to be Rick Perry) knocks a bunch of other conservatives out of the race in Iowa, Romney could see his poll lead in the Granite State evaporate. Romney can beat four or six or eight conservatives who are all splitting the hard right vote. If he has to match up against only two or three conservative opponents, he might be screwed.

As noted above, it is not possible to game out the GOP nominating process without a firm calendar, but we do know a few things.

Romney will start the process with a lot of money. Ron Paul will have a good amount of money, too, and will benefit from the fact that the early contests will not be winner-take-all. I think Paul can reliably win 10%-20% of the vote in almost every state in the Union. Early on, he will accrue delegates, and he will have staying power. Michele Bachmann should have enough money and supporters to carry her through the first four contests, but she’ll need to have some success to compete beyond that. Rick Perry should be well funded for as long as it takes for him to either win or completely bomb out. All other challengers will need to vastly exceed expectations to get beyond Iowa. As for Palin, I’d say there is nothing we can say with confidence.

Let’s look at what this means for the night of the Iowa Caucuses.

As of today, it looks like a contest between Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Should anyone else win, it would be a total game changer. If Romney won, he would probably walk to the nomination, but that is a very unlikely outcome. If Gingrich or Cain or Huntsman or Paul or Santorum or Palin or anyone else were to win, they’d be propelled to the front of the pack and the whole dynamic of the race would change. As for the top two, Perry could plausibly knock Bachmann out of the race but I don’t think the reverse is true.

Aside from who will be the winner, on the night of the Iowa Caucuses, people will be looking at the second, third, and fourth place finishers. And everything will be judged according to how they did compared to expectations (the polls). The also-ran candidates can get a major boost by unexpectedly finishing in second place. If Perry beats a second-place Bachmann and she drops out of the race, a third-place finish can become quite valuable. Finally, it matters how badly Romney does. If he’s really in the basement, it could hurt his chances in New Hampshire. On the other hand, if finishing badly allows a conservative fourth-place finisher to soldier on to New Hampshire, it could help him.

Let’s imagine two plausible scenarios.

Scenario One

Iowa Results: 1. Rick Perry 2. Michele Bachmann 3. Ron Paul 4. Mitt Romney.

If common wisdom had been that Bachmann had to win, she might drop out. With none of the other long-shot candidates having broken through, most or all of them would drop out too. And their support would be dead anyway. We’d be going to New Hampshire with it basically a three-way race between Romney, Perry, and Paul. This could be a nightmare for Romney, as he needs the conservative vote to be split more than two ways.

Scenario Two

Iowa Results: 1. Michele Bachmann 2. Rick Perry 3. Ron Paul 4. Rick Santorum.

This would boost Bachmann into super-stardom, but it probably would not overly discourage Perry. The breakthrough for Santorum (or any other also-ran) would give them a bit of momentum. And Romney would look really weak and discredited. Yet, facing three conservative challengers might be enough to put Romney over the top in New Hampshire, and he could count on winning the Nevada Caucuses due to his appeal among Mormons. He might win two of the first four contests and two of the three he seriously contested.

This second scenario could lead to a protracted campaign and even a brokered convention. Bachmann, Paul, Romney, and Perry would continue to win delegates in proportional fashion, with no one racking up large advantages, and no one even coming close to winning a majority of the delegates. All four of them could raise enough money to limp along but none of them could attain a war chest adequate to knock the others out.

If this happens, this most likely scenario, it seems to me, is that Romney would have the most delegates but that, combined, Bachmann, Perry, and Paul would have a majority. And that means that Romney would not prevail at the convention.

I’ll tell you one thing. This contest could be over in a flash or it could be like nothing we’ve ever seen.

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