Iowa Caucuses: Five Things to Watch
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).