Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tonight Is The Night

Tonight, for at least a while, power gets taken out of the hands of pundits and into the hands of registered voters as the Iowa Caucuses kick off the election season.  I'll be posting live updates as events unfold. 

First, a primer on the caucuses:
Who May Participate: Any registered Republican willing to show up on a Tuesday night, declare openly their support for a candidate and invest three hours or so in the process.

 How It Works:
 (1) At each caucus precinct, 15 minutes are allocated to a representative of each campaign to speak on behalf of candidates.  Typically well funded campaigns have representatives at virtually every location, whereas some of the more shoe-string campaigns may focus only on more populated areas.

(2) A first ballot is tallied with the preference vote of each party member in attendance recorded.  In some precincts, this is done by paper ballot, in others by a show of hands or by standing under a candidate's sign.

(3) Based on the first round results, candidates receiving an insufficient percentage of the vote to warrant a delegate are eliminated from contention and a new round of balloting ensues, with the supporters of the now-eliminated candidates free to join any of the candidates still left.

(4) The results of the second round of balloting are used to award delegates.

Obviously you can see the inherent unpredictability of these events versus a primary.  Whose supporters will show up and invest the considerable commitment?  What will happen with supporters of eliminated candidates?  How will speeches and friends and neighbors sway the more-public voting?

Handicapping the night, there appear to be three viable scenarios that could happen:
(1) The Romney Squeaker
Mitt is able to maintain the 25%ish support that he has been steadily holding in the polls and eeks out a victory over both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

(2) The Momentum Play
Rick Santorum's surge from virtually nothing two weeks ago continues and he pulls of an improbable upset.  This could well come into play if some of the lower-polling conservatives, such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry are knocked out of contention for delegates in some precincts in the first round of balloting, freeing them up to support someone else.  One would presume that they would break disproportionately for Santorum.

(3) The Passion Play
Ron Paul's avid supporters show up in far greater numbers than the lukewarm support for Romney and Paul outperforms recent polls slightly and pulls off the upset.

My prediction?  I think Scenario 1 is about a 60% probability, scenario 2 about a 30% probability and scenario 3 a 10% probability.  Caucuses are tough to poll for, Santorum is rising and Paul's supporter are passionate, but I'm amazed how often, in spite of all the unpredictable dynamics, these things seem to resemble the late polls in the final tally.  But certainly any of them are possible.

So what would each scenario mean?
Scenario 1 portends a very high probability of a Romney nomination.  He is almost sure to win New Hampshire in this scenario.  Newt Gingrich would likely stay in to make a stand in South Carolina and Florida, where he is still polling more strongly and Ron Paul would stay on, but as more of a sideshow than a serious candidate.

Scenario 2 could create a real horse race.  Other conservatives such as Bachmann and Perry may well withdraw from the race, consolidating the "not Mitt" vote behind one candidate.  Keep in mind though, that because of his late rise, Santorum hasn't really been vetted or taken heat the way the other candidates have.  I still like Mitt in all the scenarios, but this scenario is by far the most intriguing of the bunch.

Scenario 3 could well catapult Ron Paul into contention in libertarian New Hampshire, but even if he wins a one-two in the first two states, does he have any real shot to broaden his appeal in other, later venues?  It's doubtful although this would not doubt leave him in the spotlight until the end and assure that Romney does not wrap up the nomination quickly.

Stay tuned...it's going to be a fun night.

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