If Mitt Romney wins both Iowa and N.H., it may be 'game over'

If Mitt Romney wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, it would be a first for someone who isn’t already president. But the Iowa caucuses have a habit of producing surprises, and there are scenarios under which Romney doesn't live up to expectations.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (r.), the former governor of Massachusetts, and his wife, Ann, are joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a campaign appearance at a Hy-Vee grocery store Dec. 30 in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Four days before the Iowa caucuses, it’s now clear that Mitt Romney could win there and then the New Hampshire primary a week later.

The latest Iowa polls show the former Massachusetts governor neck and neck with Texas Rep. Ron Paul for the lead, with both in the low 20s among likely caucusgoers. In New Hampshire, polls show an average 20-point lead for Mr. Romney over his nearest competitor, Congressman Paul.

If Romney wins both, that would be unprecedented for someone who isn’t already president.

Since the GOP Iowa caucuses began to matter in 1980, Iowa and New Hampshire have had a history of going in different directions. And if Romney wins both by comfortable margins, then for all intents and purposes, it’s game over.

Romney will have a lock on the Republican nomination, as the only candidate with momentum, big money, a national organization, and substantial room for growth in his numbers. (Iowa provides a clue on that last point: 50 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers view Romney as “acceptable” for the nomination, versus only 35 percent who see Paul that way, according to the new NBC-Marist poll.)

“If he wins both, the image that it’s over will be hard to shake,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The media will be full of stories about how no one who is not already president has ever pulled off the one-two punch.

But if Romney wins Iowa with a small plurality, that will give hope to the also-rans. And there’s no indication that Romney can win Iowa going away, because of continuing reservations over his moderate image, policy flip-flops, and Mormonism.  

Also, the caucus format favors the most enthusiastic voters, as it requires attending an evening-long event at an appointed time, unlike a primary. The NBC-Marist poll shows Romney has less “strong support” (51 percent of his voters) than the surging Rick Santorum (59 percent), Paul (54 percent), and Rick Perry (52 percent).

So if Romney wins Iowa, it is likely to be with a low plurality – perhaps even with the same 25 percent he won in his second-place finish four years ago. Chances are Paul won’t be far behind. And Mr. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, could surprise both.

Next, if Romney wins New Hampshire by a smaller-than-expected margin – say, by less than 10 percentage points – he will have underperformed, raising questions about his ability to compete on less-friendly turf. South Carolina, with its large conservative evangelical population, will provide that test in its Jan. 21 primary. After that, the Florida primary (Jan. 31) will test Romney’s strength among a bigger, more diverse GOP electorate – and could seal the former governor’s fate either way.

But it’s really too soon to game out anything beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, as those two contests are likely to winnow the field. The question will be where the supporters of the dropouts end up going.

For now, Romney is waging a battle against expectations.

Even though he campaigned little in Iowa in the early going, he, his family, and key surrogates – see New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – are all in, waving the Romney flag in the Hawkeye State in the home stretch. Anything less than a strong second-place finish for Romney on Tuesday will raise eyebrows.

The latest NBC-Marist poll contains another piece of good news for Romney in Iowa.

Among tea party supporters, Romney and Paul are tied at 17 percent each. The only candidate who performs better is Santorum, at 20 percent. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, whose overall numbers have taken a dive, polls at 16 percent among tea partyers. Texas Governor Perry gets 15 percent, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann gets 10 percent.

“This is the Romney dream scenario,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told NBC. “When you look at the tea party and conservatives, they are all splintered.”

One final caveat: The Iowa caucuses have a habit of producing surprises. Last time, it was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s come-from-behind victory with 34 percent of the vote. At this point, a victory by Romney or Paul wouldn’t be surprising. Santorum could be the surprise finisher of Iowa 2012 – even if it’s coming in a strong second.

An early clue could come Saturday at 7 p.m. central time, with the release of the final Des Moines Register poll of likely GOP caucusgoers. In the final precaucus poll of 2008, The Register had Mr. Huckabee leading.

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