In politics, the expectations game can cut both ways.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appears within striking distance of a win in tonight’s Iowa caucuses after a volatile months-long stretch in which several of his competitors in the GOP presidential field took turns atop the polls before quickly flaming out.
Romney’s rise was somewhat unexpected, but both the candidate and his campaign team appear confident in their chances. Romney is delivering his post-caucus speech from Iowa, rather than moving on to New Hampshire, and most observers now point to him as the candidate to beat.
But anything can happen on caucus night. And that raises the question: What happens if Romney — gasp! — comes in third place?
If you think a third-place finish is impossible for Romney, think again. Polls show him in a dead heat with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) for the top spot tonight, with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum trailing. The latest Des Moines Register poll had Romney taking 24 percent to Paul’s 22 percent and Santorum’s 15 percent.
But Santorum is gaining momentum, and a key question heading into tonight will be whether he picks off enough former supporters of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain (Cain withdrew his presidential primary bid last month).
If Santorum manages to grab those voters, he could rocket to second or even first place.
Paul, meanwhile, has enjoyed enthusiastic support from his base, and their excitement could spur a big turnout at the caucuses — and a big showing for their candidate when results start rolling in after 8 p.m.
One of Romney’s main campaign messages is that he’s the candidate best poised to beat President Obama next fall. A victory in Iowa would only boost that claim: He would be on the road toward making history as the first GOP candidate to place first in both first-in-the nation states. (Polls show him with a wide margin over Paul in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 10.)
If he places second to Paul or Santorum, Romney would still have outperformed expectations, and the narrative out of Iowa would be that he is poised to make a strong showing in the upcoming nominating contests.
But a third-place finish in Iowa – particularly since Romney has gained so much in the polls -- could prove problematic.
It would fuel the argument that Romney is not the top choice for many conservatives, who still distrust of Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. It would shatter Romney’s air of inevitability. And it would likely give his rivals a foothold in fundraising, which could mean a lengthier primary fight than originally expected.
None of that is to suggest that a third-place showing would be disastrous for Romney’s campaign – far from it.
To wit, Romney has just released his latest Florida TV ad, a 30-second spot similar to his previous primary ads focusing on his “steadiness and constancy” and highlighting his family:
However Romney shows tonight, he obviously has his sights firmly set on the bigger contests ahead.
There’s also a case to be made that this election’s Iowa caucus campaign is something of an anomaly in that there has been no solid frontrunner and that Iowan Republicans have been unusually indecisive. Hence, a win by Paul or Santorum (both unlikely nominees) could have little impact on the broader race.
Margins, too, can make a difference: If Romney comes in third but trails the top two contenders by only a few points, the damage would be much less than if he were to lose by a wider margin.
Nevertheless, third-place showing in Iowa tonight would put a dent in Romney’s electability argument — and could translate into a tougher hike on the trail in the coming months.