And the winner of the GOP presidential race is… Mitt Romney?

Probably. We will know more after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Questions:

1. Who really need to score well in Iowa and for whom is this contest not so important in your opinion, and why?

2. Is it a surprise that Ron Paul leads in the polls before Iowa caucuses?

3. And if I may ask for a prediction: Who will win the GOP nomination at the end?

Answers:

Timothy Hagle, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Iowa

1. The only candidate for whom the Iowa caucuses are not important is Huntsman and that’s because he isn’t competing here. The Iowa Caucuses are important for the other six candidates, but for different reasons. Bachmann and Santorum haven’t had a lot of resources to run their campaigns. Like many candidates with little funding they have put the bulk of their effort into Iowa in hopes that a strong finish here will give them some momentum and give them the opportunity to raise funds for later contests. Gingrich has more name recognition, but also has little funding. He also needs to do well here to establish that he is a viable candidate in later primaries and caucuses. Perry started strong but faded because of poor debate performances. He as more resources than the other three, but he also needs to do well in Iowa to show that he was able to come back. Romney has been steady in the polls and he has the resources to stay in the race. He put a lot of time and effort into Iowa four years ago and was disappointed by a second place finish. He decided this time to focus less on Iowa and more on New Hampshire. He can discount a poor showing here by saying that he didn’t compete hard here this time. That said, a strong finish here would give him even more momentum in New Hampshire (where he is expected to win) and then on to South Carolina’s primary. Paul won’t get the Republican nomination, so his finish in the Iowa Caucuses has less to do with his chances than what it does to the rest of the candidates. Gingrich really needs to win Iowa to have a chance to close the gap on Romney in New Hampshire and then be able to go on to South Carolina where recent polls had him leading Romney. If Paul beats Gingrich in Iowa that makes it much harder for Gingrich to compete against Romney in New Hampshire and beyond.

2. In some respects it is, but in others it isn’t. Paul has been building his support base for the last four years, and his supporters tend to be very loyal and very intense. His support in the Republican base is relatively limited, mainly because of his positions on foreign policy and national security, so he relies on bringing in a lot of independents and some Democrats to his camp. One reason he is doing well in the polls is that the rest of the field is split among several other candidates. Romney more or less represents the moderate Republicans and polls fairly steady in the low 20% range. The social conservatives make up a large group of likely caucus-goers in Iowa, but they are pretty evenly split between Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum, with Gingrich picking up the rest. Thus, Paul’s lead has more to do with the split in the rest of the field than Paul himself.

Another reason that Paul is leading in some polls has to do with the polls themselves. Some of them oversample independents and Democrats. The pollsters simply ask the person if he or she is likely to attend the Republican caucus. Independents and Democrats can attend the Republican caucus if they change their voter registration that night. Pollsters often include a higher percentage of independents and Democrats who say they will attend the Republican caucus than are actually likely to do so.

3. There are two or three candidates who have at least a reasonable chance to win the nomination. If Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire it would give him a lot of momentum in South Carolina, Florida, and beyond, which would make it harder for others to beat him. If Gingrich wins Iowa and finishes a strong second in New Hampshire (to Romney), then he would have momentum going into South Carolina and beyond. If Santorum (who seems to be gaining some momentum here) finishes in the top three in Iowa, the more conservative voters may coalesce around him and he could become the more conservative alternative to Romney. On the whole, my best guess is that Romney will get the nomination based on his strong organization and the resources he has available for a long nomination fight.

David McCuan, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sonoma State University

1. The contest in Iowa is shaping up to be anything but conventional. As we enter the final days of the contest, national politics and the dynamics of the GOP primary itself are spilling over into the Iowa caucuses. First, there remains a large part of the GOP electorate that is happy with Governor Romney as the GOP nominee. However, there is a large contingent, comprised of Tea Party activists and others, who are also wary of Romney as the GOP nominee. Hence the last few months of changes in momentum and polling leaders among candidates in the race (Perry, Gingrich, and now Ron Paul) and those not in the race (Palin, Trump, Christie, Giuliani, Bloomberg, and so on).

At several points, the GOP race has been “anyone but Romney.” I expect, though, that Romney will ultimately be the nominee and will do well in Iowa and well in New Hampshire. Romney needs to do well by winning at least one of those two first contests as the South Carolina primary is heavy with Evangelical Christians and Romney will be hard pressed to compete there. However, in another early primary state, Nevada where Romney did well and spent TONS of money in the 2008 contest, he and his campaign operation never left that state and have a strong operation there.

2. Not really. At this point, there is a large percentage of GOP voters just turning their attention to the Republican candidates in a serious way these last few weeks. As a result, as Super PAC ads sunk Gingrich (someone who has little on the ground campaign operatives working states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia until only very recently), as Perry fumbled and bumbled his way through the debates, as Bachmann struggles to be perceived as a ‘heavyweight’ candidate and an alternative to Romney, Ron Paul has slugged along, like a tortoise, trotting out his ideas. He is the candidate du jour of the GOP protest vote. Right now, Ron Paul is not seen as someone who is ultimately wins the GOP nomination, so a vote for him is one that sends a message of protest about how the contest and our nation’s politics is going if you are a GOP primary voter. For Romney, a Ron Paul victory in Iowa doesn’t hurt him much IF Romney comes in second. A showing of third or worse and the lack of a win in New Hampshire would put Romney and his campaign really under some tremendous pressure early in the race, but they could easily run out to the March ‘Super Tuesday’ primary round.

3. Romney. I think this race for the GOP nomination runs true to form – national reputation, past candidate, national operation – Romney fits that bill. He has M.O.E. and M.O.R.E. He has Money, Organization, and Endorsements. He also has Resources (the ‘R’ in M.O.R.E.).

The only thing that sinks Romney, and this is an important qualification and little covered by US media, is his Mormon religion. There is some segment of the voting public that will not vote for him based on his religion. That segment is probably between 15% & 20% among the GOP primary voters. In a General Election next November, bigotry towards his religion may play an important role and is a variable to watch in the race.

Russell Riley, Associate Professor and Chair of the Miller Center of Public Affairs’s Presidential Oral History Program, University of Virginia

1. I’m not sure that there is anything approaching a “must” win for the candidates in Iowa. The big thing for everyone is to stay close to the pack, because there is Romney in the lead nationally and then everybody else vying to be the alternative to him. Moreover, the numbers in Iowa are so close and jumbled as to make them almost meaningless—especially so since this is a caucus state, where organizational power is as important as public approval—you have to get well-organized supporters out to the caucuses to vote. The real problem for everybody is to avoid falling significantly behind the second tier of candidates—such that they are no longer considered a part of the national conversation. I think this is especially so for the real social conservatives, which Iowa tends to favor. If Bachman or Santorum drop back, they’ll have a hard time regaining momentum. The other thing to keep in mind now is that the nomination process is so compressed in time, that “survival” means lasting another week or so to see whether later caucuses and primaries will benefit them.

2. Only mildly so—again, look at what it means to be “ahead” or “behind” in Iowa and you’ll see what I mean. The latest poll I saw has Romney in the LEAD with 23% of the vote—which also means that he is at best the second choice of nearly 80% of Iowa voters! In a highly populated field like this, it is no surprise that Paul will do well, because in any given state he might garner 20% or so of Republican voters. That is meaningful now—meaningLESS if the field narrows to two or three candidates, whose ceilings are much higher. This suggests that Iowa is important only in the context of what happens in later states.

3. I genuinely don’t know—because every candidate in the field has major flaws which logically makes him/her an improbable nominee. I do think Romney would be far and away the most formidable opposition for President Obama, but, as a southerner myself, I can’t see him gaining the confidence of the social conservative core of the party, partly based on his past record and partly based on his religion. For many of these conservatives, failings in the former—which he might reasonably explain away—are cited as a pretext for opposing him based actually on his Mormonism—which it would be politically incorrect to cite as a point of opposition. And if you move beyond Romney, there is not a soul in the mix who can command vast support even within the party. Of course, these things tend to settle themselves out over time—unless the party decides to use this year as a replay of 1964: they knew they were going over a cliff with Barry Goldwater and did it anyway.

Steffen Schmidt, University Professor of Political Science, Iowa State University

1. If Bachmann and Santorum don’t beat expectations and come in at the top 4 they are probably dead.

2. Ron Paul has had a strong but exotic following in Iowa where his libertarian ideas connect with about 25% of voters. We don’t know if his younger base will attend caucuses however because colleges are on vacation.

3. I think Mitt Romney has the best chance of getting the nomination but it may take months at least until Super Tuesday in March or even the national convention in Tampa where GOP Super Delegates – the establishment – will have significant power.

David Peterson, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Iowa State University

1. There will be a couple of key stories coming of the Caucuses: How well did Romney do? If he is first, then it will be a short nomination contest and he will win. If he is second behind Ron Paul, then New Hampshire becomes very important. If he finishes behind any other candidate, it opens the door for whoever that person is. Did Ron Paul win? If Paul wins, he has to be taken more seriously and it can give him a leg up on other states. I think he still loses in the end, but he has to be taken more seriously. Third, who is the main challenger to Romney? Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum are all trying to be the conservative alternative to Romney. The Caucuses will set up the narrative for one of these four.

2. It isn’t a surprise at all. Paul has spent a lot of time in this state since 2008 and has built up a following the same way candidates have in the past. He has a group of ardent supporters who have been persuading their friends and neighbors for 4 years.

3. Romney. The strongest predictor of who wins the nomination is who wins the “invisible primary,” the battle for the endorsements of major party players (office holders and other party officials). Romney is way ahead in this race and that bodes well for him in the end.

Dennis Goldford, Professor of Politics, Dept. of Politics and International Relations, Drake University

1. Gingrich and the bottom tier–Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum–need to exceed expectations. Romney can do well by finishing first or a close second.

2. Roughly speaking, enthusiasm x organization = turnout, and turnout is the key to any electoral event. Paul has enthusiastic, even devoted, followers and a very good organization. With the rest of the field so fragmented, Paul’s support looks strong.

3. No predictions.

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