On the morning of the Iowa caucuses, analysis pieces like this are almost obligatory. What happens under various scenarios that might unfold tonight? There are certain opinions that are becoming conventional wisdom. For example, if Romney wins tonight then he will coast to the nomination. Or, if Ron Paul wins it will help Romney by doing harm to his strongest potential opponents. Or, if Santorum wins he won’t have enough money to capitalize on it.

Those are all defensible opinions, but there’s more to look at than this surface analysis.

The nomination isn’t going to be won in Iowa or New Hampshire. It’s going to be won, most likely, in South Carolina and Florida. The results from tonight are only important for how they will impact those southern contests. Let’s assume that Santorum will finish in the top three tonight, with Paul and Romney. The next thing to look at will be the placement of Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann. Gingrich’s position is important because he has a double-digit lead in all recent polls out of South Carolina. If his support dries up, it will go primarily to other not-Mitt candidates. With a top three finish in Iowa, Rick Santorum would be the most obvious beneficiary of Newt’s collapse, but the support could also flow to Perry or Bachmann. Let’s look at the polls in a couple of different ways.

New Hampshire
Romney: 41%
Paul: 19%
Gingrich: 13%
Santorum: 4%
Other Not-Mitt: 21%
Source: RCP Average

South Carolina
Gingrich: 37%
Romney: 21%
Paul: 9%
Santorum: 3%
Other Not-Mitt: 16%
Source: RCP Average

One thing to add to this is that while the social conservatives may give Rick Santorum a somewhat unique chance to over-perform in Iowa, the more moderate electorate of New Hampshire may do the same for Jon Huntsman, who is polling about even with Gingrich in the Granite State.

Let’s look at Ron Paul first. If he wins in Iowa, he will get a lot of attention. The Republican Establishment is absolutely dreading this outcome, but they’re ready to go after Paul with all guns blazing if they need to. Paul’s triumphant speech tonight would touch on a variety of themes of that deviate from conservative orthodoxy, making many, probably most, people deeply uncomfortable. The week leading up to New Hampshire would become a debate about Ron Paul and his unfamiliar views. This would suck up almost all the oxygen, leaving little room for the other candidates to make much of a move either way. It’s hard to predict how it would all shake out in New Hampshire. Dr. Paul might get a boost and close the gap with Romney. Or he might feel a bit like Howard Dean did when the press and the Democratic Establishment buried him between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. In any case, I think the rest of the polls would be largely frozen, with Huntsman and Gingrich fighting for third place and Santorum feeling frustrated that his better-than-expected finish didn’t garner him any real attention.

But what if Santorum wins tonight? In this case, the focus will be on the oddity not of the candidate but of the caucus system in Iowa, which seems to produce unelectable winners from the extreme socially-conservative fringe. Yet, Santorum won’t be savaged by the Establishment. In fact, there should be some effort by the part of the Establishment that truly doesn’t like or trust Romney to buck up Santorum’s credentials. I’m certain you’ll see this from talk radio and much of the blogosphere. Can it move Santorum’s numbers from the low single digits in New Hampshire and South Carolina? I think he’ll pick up Bachmann’s support, at the very least. He’ll need to cut into Perry and Gingrich’s support to move into the top tier. However, New Hampshire enjoys vetoing Iowa’s choices, and I think a lot of the not-Mitt vote will move to Jon Huntsman. He may move into third place behind Romney and Paul, and Gingrich may head to South Carolina on the tail of two disappointing finishes.

Finally, what if Romney wins? This will, indeed, be reported as a coronation. After all, if Romney can win in Iowa without visiting it more than a handful of times last year, without spending a whole lot, and without initially even planning to compete there, then his opposition is simply too weak to present any competition. But the truth is that he’ll still have to close a double-digit deficit in South Carolina. It’s hard to see how Romney is threatened by either Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, so it’s also hard to see how he’d be all that better off for having beat them in Iowa. His biggest benefit would be kind of indirect. The Republican Party would be spared the embarrassment and controversy of Iowa selecting someone far out of the mainstream. Their electorate would look less insane and threatening. That would help Romney in the general.

To summarize, Romney looks strong overall, and his position won’t be impacted too much by tonight’s results, no matter what happens. But he still has to deal with the fact that he is polling far behind in South Carolina. If Gingrich finishes in fourth or fifth place, his big lead in South Carolina could begin to dwindle in a big way. Rick Perry isn’t going to do well tonight and Bachmann will probably be knocked out of the race. Neither of them will be a factor in New Hampshire either. But Perry can hope to pick up conservative support in South Carolina if the field is winnowed by then. Santorum needs to win. If he doesn’t win, he’d benefit most by a second place finish behind Romney, not Paul. That would allow him to get some positive press. Ron Paul could benefit from a win tonight for two reasons. He’s more serious about promoting his ideology than he is about actually winning, and a week’s worth of bright celebrity is just what he’s shooting for. As for the nomination, he can’t win it outright but he could possibly become a king-maker at the Republican National Convention. To do that, he needs to win at least a third of the delegates. Winning in Iowa would be a good start. On the other hand, he needs a not-Mitt partner to take up another third of the delegates or he won’t have all that much influence at the convention regardless of how many delegates he controls. By winning in Iowa, he may inadvertently make it less likely that he’ll have that not-Mitt partner.

So, that’s what I think tonight will mean, under a variety of likely scenarios. What do you think?

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