Iowa, it seems, is still undecided.
Fifteen days before that state’s caucuses formally begin the Republican presidential race, even longtime observers of Iowa politics acknowledge that they have never seen this level of uncertainty in the electorate.
Chris Cillizza is founder and editor of The Fix, a leading blog on state and national politics. He is the author of The Gospel According to the Fix: An Insider’s Guide to a Less than Holy World of Politics and an MSNBC contributor and political analyst. He also regularly appears on NBC and NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. He joined The Post in 2005 and was named one of the top 50 journalists by Washingtonian in 2009.
GOP endorsement game: Guess which presidential candidate each Republican insider will support, and come back later to track your progress.
“There is always some segment of the caucus electorate that is undecided going into caucus night, but the fact that over half of likely Iowa caucus attendees are telling pollsters they could change their mind in the final two weeks on which candidate to support is unprecedented,” said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn.
Said Dave Roederer, who was an adviser to President George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain in Iowa: “This may be one of those Christmases when you really don’t know what’s in the package.”
Polling affirms this unsettled state of affairs in Iowa. Although former House speaker Newt Gingrich has moved into a clear lead in the state over the past several weeks, about half — 52 percent — of likely caucus-goers said they could change their minds about a candidate, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey.
Although Iowa has rarely chosen either party’s nominee — remember President Huckabee? — it has long served to winnow the field. For candidates playing in the state, which in this race means everyone but former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., finishing in the top two (or, at worst, top three) is a necessity as they try to build momentum heading into New Hampshire (Jan. 10), South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31).
Given Iowa’s winnowing power, playing the expectations game matters — a lot. Here’s a look at the Iowa expectations for the six candidates who are actively competing in the state — ranked in order of their likelihood of winning.
●Newt Gingrich: There are signs that Gingrich may have peaked slightly too soon in the Hawkeye State. Not only is he organizationally behind, he is also being heavily outspent by his rivals — all of whom are attacking him — on television. That means that the average Iowa voter is seeing a whole lot of negative information about Gingrich and next to nothing positive about or from him. Gingrich seems to be hoping that his appeal to big ideas and not small attacks will carry him through. If it does, he’ll defy conventional political wisdom. Again. What he needs: Given his rise in Iowa and nationally, he must finish first or second.
●Ron Paul: The congressman from Texas is the not-so-secret smart guy’s pick to win Iowa. Polling suggests he is running steadily behind Gingrich in the state but, unlike the former House speaker, Paul has put together an extensive political organization. There’s little question that his support in Iowa is deep; he, more than any other candidate, has a totally reliable base of caucus-goers. If that base is roughly the 11,800 votes he received in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the question is how much wider he can grow his support. He’ll probably need to double it (at least) to finish in the top two. What he needs: A win would shock the political world. Second place would keep him in the game through New Hampshire.