One more thing to keep in mind with one week to go before Iowa: everyone in the system has strong incentives to exaggerate how volatile the presidential nomination contest is and how uncertain the outcome. Matt Glassman has a timely reminder of that today; he argues that even Mitt Romney may find it in his interest to pretend the race is wide open:
[W]hat if Romney does indeed have a 98% or 100% chance of winning the nomination right now, he knows it, but everyone else (see above) is pretending it’s not true? He can’t just go out and say it or act on it in any way, because he could conceivably hurt himself. No voters want to hear it, everyone else would be denying it, and he would sound arrogant. So at the bare minimum, Romney has to play along with the competitiveness thing for now.
I’m not sure I would go quite that far. Glassman believes that Romney is in fact a near-lock, but if the Mittster is only a solid frontrunner, then his incentive is to convince everyone that it’s a done deal so that his rivals are frozen out of important campaign resources. And I think politicians and their staff are romantics at heart: they never think they have it won (just as there are few true “hopeless” losers because even the longest of longshots convince themselves to have a bit of hope). But the rest of his excellent post is correct: the other candidates, the press, campaign professionals, and individual states all have strong incentives to emphasize uncertainty.
Pundits can do that, of course, and still be perfectly honest. I referred earlier to evidence that Iowa and New Hampshire can be unpredictable. That’s true – but it’s also true that if Michele Bachmann, for example, surges and takes second place in Iowa that she’s still not going to win the nomination. And that will continue throughout the sequential nomination process, at least as long as no one has totally clinched the nomination.
The best example of this was back in 2000, on the Republican side. George W. Bush won the nomination that year – or, actually, in 1999 – by dominating the invisible primary. He clinched it by winning in Iowa. After that, there was really no plausible chance he could be beaten. And yet the press managed to keep things alive for quite some time by showering favorable publicity on John McCain, who had no realistic chance at all of winning, even after he scored a few anomalous primary wins.
Now, in my view we’re not there quite yet, but we could be awfully close. Just don’t expect everyone to let you know.