The Campaign Spot

War-Gaming the GOP Early Contests, Six Weeks Out

I join my NR colleagues on the cruise tomorrow, but for the week, a thought or two, war-gaming out the upcoming GOP primaries . . .

It is mid-November. Iowa Republicans vote in their caucus on January 3, roughly six weeks away.

And we’re still not sure if Mitt Romney is going to make a serious push at Iowa. (Increasingly, it appears he will; the Des Moines Register writes about evangelicals giving him a second look here.)

It’s almost unthinkable that a candidate who has a decent shot at winning the first contest wouldn’t choose to make a serious effort to win, but we live in strange times. Romney has visited only four times so far, but in the RealClearPolitics average, he trails Herman Cain by six tenths of a percentage point; Romney’s been a solid second in most polls and leads in the most recent CNN/Time survey.

At first glance, Romney has to compete. How would you describe a candidate who chose to not try to win the first contest when he’s barely behind because it wasn’t part of his campaign’s original scripted strategy? Hesitant? Too cautious? Cowardly? A half-hearted effort in Iowa, and a decision to keep the Romney campaign’s focus on New Hampshire, would be the most small-c conservative approach to campaigning in recent memory.

And yet . . . winning Iowa might set up its own problem for Romney. The recent history of presidential primaries suggests that the purpose of New Hampshire is to negate Iowa. In fact, the best way to ensure you lose New Hampshire appears to be to win Iowa:

2008: Iowa winner: Mike Huckabee. New Hampshire winner: John McCain.

2000: Iowa winner: George W. Bush. New Hampshire winner: John McCain.

1996: Iowa winner: Bob Dole. New Hampshire winner: Pat Buchanan.

1988: Iowa winner: Bob Dole. New Hampshire winner: George H.W. Bush.

1980: Iowa winner: George H. W. Bush. New Hampshire winner: Ronald Reagan.

This is a bipartisan phenomenon; look at the Democrats:

2008: Iowa winner: Barack Obama. New Hampshire winner: Hillary Clinton.

2004: Iowa winner: John Kerry. New Hampshire winner: John Kerry.

1992: Iowa winner: Tom Harkin. New Hampshire winner: Paul Tsongas.

1984: Iowa winner: Walter Mondale. New Hampshire winner: Gary Hart.

(Yes, John Kerry somehow did what no other non-incumbent, non-vice-president candidate has done since 1980.)

If Romney wins Iowa, will New Hampshire voters be determined to reject Iowa’s choice?

Obviously, as they say in those investment-fund commercials, past performance does not predict future results. And Romney’s lead in New Hampshire has been huge and consistent. But consciously or subconsciously, New Hampshire voters hate to confirm the choice of Iowa. If the Granite State rubber-stamps the choice of the Iowa caucus-goers, won’t that make Iowa even more important four years later? If Iowa is the real contest, why would candidates and campaigns shower New Hampshire voters with visits and attention and ads and spending?

Herman Cain is still doing well in New Hampshire, and this is one of Ron Paul’s stronger states. But one of the candidates who have done reasonably well here is . . . Jon Huntsman — until now, mostly an afterthought and punch-line of this campaign.

Huntsman is so thoroughly determined to demonstrate his devotion to the New Hampshire voters that he alone can say, “I boycotted candidate debates for you.” Remember, there will be no significant Democratic presidential primary, and unaffiliated voters can and do vote in party primaries. (The deadline to switch your party registration for the presidential primary was October 14.) Granite State residents can register to vote until January 3.

So suppose Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire is determined to avoid a coronation, and so the independents and Democrats cross over and fuel Huntsman to a New Hampshire primary victory. (It feels like that kind of an unpredictable, wild-unexpected-swing cycle, no?) Then the action would move to South Carolina, where conservatives would probably be apoplectic at the thought that the top two contenders for the GOP nomination were Romney, derided as an unprincipled flip-flopper, and then Huntsman, widely perceived to be the one guy clearly to the left of Romney. They would then consolidate around one of the remaining Not-Mitt, Not-Jon options . . .

Right now, the leading Not-Mitt option is Herman Cain. But by January 21, Herman Cain may look a little weaker, depending on how he finishes in Iowa and whether the harassment claims stick to him. So currently running third in South Carolina is . . . Newt Gingrich. If Iowa’s results knock out Bachmann or Santorum, and if Perry is widely perceived to be kaput . . . wouldn’t Gingrich be in the best position to win over their supporters? And if Cain’s backers waver, wouldn’t Gingrich, the fellow Georgian, be a likely second choice for them?

Under this scenario, Republicans would go to the polls on January 31 in Florida, with a winner-take-all primary, with three winners in three primaries: Romney in Iowa, Huntsman in New Hampshire, and Gingrich in South Carolina.