Dickerson: Could Santorum Really Win Iowa?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 1 2012 2:47 PM

Santorum’s Last Stand

Days before the Iowa caucus the senator shoots from the back of the pack.

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Still, Santorum can’t count on a strong showing. Nearly every Republican candidate has enjoyed a surge in the 2012 Republican race, except for Mitt Romney, who seems to have a surge protector. At 24 percent he is almost exactly where he was in the June Des Moines Register poll, which he also led with 23 percent. In the October poll he was at 22 percent. His final caucus result in 2008 was 25 percent. The good news for Romney in the poll is that as fervent as the search for an alternative seems to be, voters will be OK if he wins: 78 percent said they would be very enthusiastic or OK with the choice if Romney were the nominee, the highest enthusiasm of the top candidates tested.


And Romney just might win, benefitting from a splintered field. He's working the state hard in the final days, the culmination of a long-planned strategic blow-off of Iowa. Romney didn't participate in the compulsory events of Iowa politics—the Iowa straw poll, the Reagan dinner—and he didn't visit the state much. But his organization from 2008 was largely intact. If he had a late opportunity, the plan was to rush into the state to make a smash and grab at the very end.

Romney is drawing big crowds and finishing on a clear pitch: He's the most electable candidate. In the poll, 48 percent said he was the most electable. (His closest competitor, Newt Gingrich, got only 13 percent.) If Romney wins, it will not only ratify his Iowa strategy and give him a boost going into his stronghold of New Hampshire, but it will ratify his larger cautious strategy, which has been to focus on attacking President Obama and not responding to every challenger who seems momentarily hot.

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Political reporters and pros love the Des Moines Register poll that’s shown the late edge for Santorum because it accurately predicted the outcome of both the Republican and Democratic races in 2008. We're also all desperate for something to hold on to in this highly speculative last phase. All my phone conversations with sources are starting to sound the same—inferences about support drawn by crowd sizes (are Santorum's crowds as large as Huckabee's were?) and conjecture about whether this race is like 1980 or 1988 or 1996.

When the conversation stalls we talk about what people universally talk about at stalled points: the weather. How will it affect turnout at the 7 p.m. caucuses? It's supposed to be relatively warm on caucus day, with no precipitation, which one Republican veteran suggested would hurt Ron Paul. His supporters are the most motivated, which means he'd benefit from bad weather. His troops would mount the snowmobiles, whereas the Romney voters might stay home and enjoy a nice fire. (The Register poll contradicted this idea. Only 56 percent of Paul supporters said they would definitely attend the caucus. He no doubt has a tough core following, but as his support has grown, he's also taken on less ardent followers. This explains why he may be losing some support to Santorum.)

With two days until the voting starts, the race is as fluid as anyone can remember, though the 41 percent who told the Des Moines Register they could change their mind is smaller than the nearly 50 percent who said that in 2008. In that election, those last-minute deciders gave Mike Huckabee 34 percent of the vote and dealt a devastating blow to Mitt Romney. That was back when races used to only have one or two surges. 2012 has been a season of surges, but Santorum may have timed his perfectly.

Correction, Jan. 1, 2012: This article originally stated that Pat Robertson placed second in the Iowa caucus in 1980. Robertson placed second in 1988. (Return to the corrected sentence.)