Time to talk spin. We know that what happens in Iowa — or at least how people react to Iowa — can have significant, sometimes even massive, effects in New Hampshire, and then on to the states beyond. Some of those effects are direct: Candidates who do badly in Iowa may drop out. But who is perceived as winning Iowa is a lot trickier to figure out.
For example, suppose that Iowa finishes with Ron Paul first, Mitt Romney second, and then after a bit of a gap, Newt Gingrich takes third. In other words, the results match the PPP poll released last night, and also the current version of Nate Silver’s predictor model. So what would those results mean? Would it be a sign that Mitt Romney is so weak that he can’t even beat Ron Paul — and that the Republican Party should rally to someone else to stop Paul? Or would it be evidence that only Romney could possibly derail Paul, and the party urgently needs to unite behind him?
The answer, of course, is that both interpretations fit those numbers. So what we’ll actually get are dueling attempts to control the spin, with pro-Romney GOP opinion leaders pushing the latter and advocates for the other candidates and anti-Romney Republicans the former. That’s one of the reasons why endorsements matter: The more Republicans who appear on TV, on popular radio talk shows or in print publications are inclined to support a candidate, the better chance that candidate’s spin has of becoming the way events are interpreted.
So: If Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich finish third behind Paul and Romney, we’re quite a bit less likely to have that be the Big Story of Iowa than if Rick Perry or, perhaps, Rick Santorum finishes third, since it appears that Republican Party actors are a lot less interested in supporting Bachmann and Gingrich.
Now, there are limits to this: If Bachmann finishes first in Iowa, she’s going to be the big story going forward, although I’d guess that the story will be a lot less purely positive than the story Perry would get for a similar finish. There’s an overall bias, as I talked about yesterday, in favor of spin that supports the idea of a closely contested fight (and therefore, at this point, against Mitt Romney, should he do well). And remember: All that I’m talking about here is the post-Iowa spin, which will particularly be important in New Hampshire — after which new story lines and new interpretations will kick in, which are again going to be structured and influenced by what party actors think.
We can think of all of this in terms of candidate resources: The fact that a lot of high-visibility Republicans would be pleased if Mitt Romney is nominated is an important resource for him going forward, just as real as campaign organization or a super PAC. In other words, the invisible primary is over, but the importance of party actors doesn’t go away, as they now share the stage with voters and with the mass media.