Sometime after 7 p.m., all over Iowa, more than 100,000 hardy souls will gather in their communities to pick a Republican nominee for president.
For the next several hours, the rest of the country will be waiting for those Iowans to pull the trigger on the starting pistol for the 2012 campaign.
Some years the Iowa dynamic is clear — a yes-or-no, this-one-or-that-one proposition that is easily answered by the result at the end of the night.
This won’t be one of those years.
The three leading candidatesentering the caucuses are almost evenly tied, making the possibility of a close, three-way finish not only possible but perhaps likely. The candidates in the polls’ second tier have all vowed to continue on no matter what happens in Iowa.
And the expectations for each of the candidates have been bouncing around so wildly that it’s hard to put into perspective the difference between a candidate who squeaks out a first-place finish versus the one who falls to third, but just by a hair.
Here are five things to watch as the night unfolds.
Four years ago, nearly 60 percent of the nearly 120,000 people who attended the Republican caucuses identified themselves as evangelicals. It was one of the largest percentages in recent memory and it helped power Mike Huckabee to a victory.
But the high proportion of religious (and mostly Christian) voters also made the caucus-day electorate even less representative of the broader electorate that will vote in other state primaries and in the general election later this year.
It will be interesting to see that number tonight. If it is high, that would likely help Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania. But it would provide ammunition to those who say the Iowa results are not a good barometer of the rest of the campaign.
If that proportion is low, it may help confirm what politicians in both parties have been saying for months: that the really motivated voters this time around are the ones fired up by economic concerns, not social ones. That would probably be good news for Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
A Ron Paul Fade?
The big thing that has always been holding back Representative Ron Paul of Texas is the question of whether he is electable in a contest against President Obama in a race that takes place in the broader electorate countrywide.
Mr. Paul has done everything he can to combat that concern. His campaign this time is better organized than his 2008 bid, has more money, is airing slick television commercials and has effectively reached out to a core audience that goes beyond the libertarians and students who backed him four years ago.
If Mr. Paul succeeds in winning the Iowa caucus — and especially if he does so by a respectable margin — it will go a long way toward suggesting that he has hit upon a formula that can deal with the electability question.
But if he fades — falling to third place or even lower — it may be the clearest evidence that questions about his long-term viability as a Republican nominee remain a stumbling block for his campaign.
In 2008, at the height of the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats turned out in record numbers in Iowa. More than 220,000 people gathered in caucuses to choose between the two Democrats (and the others on the ballot).
No one expects Republicans to match that number Tuesday night. But the level of participation will be a peek into the crystal ball of partisan enthusiasm in a swing state that will be crucial to both sides in the general election.
Fourteen months after a tidal wave of Republican energy helped sweep many Democrats out of Congress, the Iowa results will provide a hint about whether that intensity of purpose remains.
If 140,000 or 150,000 voters show up to the caucuses, that would be a good sign for Republicans (who have said for months that they have succeeded in adding to the rolls of registered Republicans). If fewer people show up than last time, it may suggest that the excitement of 2010 has faded a bit.
Romney's Margin (Either Way):
Future political strategists may use Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in Iowa as the model for how to set expectations properly.
For nearly the entire year, his campaign strategists made the case that Mr. Romney would not necessarily campaign hard here. They were careful not to raise expectations by committing too much time or money in Iowa, running more of a stealth campaign and stopping by just enough to make sure voters were not offended by his absence.
The absence kept him from being drawn into Iowa battles with the other candidates as they rose and fell. And then, in December, when it looked like there might be an opening, he pounced — jumping in with both feet (and with the help of a “super PAC” to pummel his opponents, particularly Newt Gingrich).
The result is that most political observers argue that Mr. Romney can afford not to win outright in Iowa. If he comes in second — or, conceivably, even third — he would probably declare himself satisfied and quickly move on to New Hampshire, where he enjoys a big lead in the polls.
So the thing to look at will be his margin, in either direction.
If Mr. Romney wins big, coming in first and outpacing his opponents by an impressive margin, the impact on his campaign could be dramatic. Such an outcome would have been unexpected given the polls which all predicted a close race. And it would help fuel a narrative that the party is beginning to coalesce around him.
On the other hand, if he loses big — falling not just to third place, but a distant third — Mr. Romney will probably spend Wednesday morning explaining why the result should not be seen as a significant rejection of his efforts to be seen as the inevitable nominee of the party.
All of the focus on the top three finishers makes sense. Terry E. Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, says every time he gets the chance that there are “three tickets out of Iowa.” The candidates who finish fifth and sixth will face a lot of pressure to drop out, especially if they are way behind at the end of the night.
But keep an eye on fourth place. If Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum finish in the top three, there will be many people who will argue that neither one is in a position to effectively challenge Mr. Romney as the primary battle extends for months.
The argument against Mr. Paul will be that he is not electable (see above). The argument against Mr. Santorum will be that, like Mr. Huckabee four years ago, he does not have the campaign infrastructure to mount an effective anti-Romney campaign even if the money starts flowing in.
In that context, a fourth-place Iowa finisher could emerge as the most effective voice inside the party arguing against a coronation of Mr. Romney. That would be made easier if the candidate in fourth place is not too far behind the ones in the top tier.
Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, is waiting in New Hampshire, having decided not to campaign in Iowa. And if he does well there on Jan. 10 he could try to claim the mantle of Mr. Romney’s main challenger for the nomination.
But there is a political value to having competed, and if the fourth-place finisher goes on to do even better in either New Hampshire or South Carolina, it could pump new life into his or her campaign.