We could see some surprises, but if the pre-caucus polling is accurate, tonight’s results are likely to cause the biggest headaches for Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. As Byron York reports, a new “campaign ad study found that only 20 percent of ads have targeted [Mitt Romney], and even those mostly hit several candidates, with Romney being just one of a group.”
With intense competition to be the anti-Romney, everyone forgot to hit Romney.
How likely is it that this dynamic will change in subsequent states? Undoubtedly, Jon Huntsman will go after Romney in New Hampshire. Santorum is quick to insist he’s not going to concede New Hampshire, and so he’ll be eager to swing at the frontrunner there. But among Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann, the desire to knock out the others — or to try to dislodge Santorum as the preeminent social conservative in the race — will be intense. Will they have the self-control to stop hitting the other Not Romneys and focus on Romney?
It’s a bit like the prisoner’s dilemma. The conservatives running against Romney have the best shot of defeating him by putting their limited resources towards hitting him. But they have the best shot of being the strongest rival to Romney by attacking each other first. And the longer they fight each other, the more Romney has a relatively easy road to piling up wins. (If Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, there will be a widespread perception — erroneous, but widespread — that he has the nomination all wrapped up.)
Santorum, Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann need the other three to drop out quickly. But right now, none of them have much incentive to drop out. Barring some abysmal and embarrassing performance tonight, none of them will have much incentive to quit the race until after South Carolina.
UPDATE: Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer put it rather succinctly on CNN a moment ago: “Mitt Romney doesn’t want anyone to drop out [of the race]; Rick Santorum wants everybody to drop out.”