Ron Paul is quite clearly capable of winning the Iowa caucuses. But if Mr. Paul wins Iowa, what happens next?
The major constraint Mr. Paul faces is that his base of support, while enthusiastic, is quite narrow, with his preferences diverging from many Republican voters’ on foreign policy and on social policy. This shows up clearly in the polling data, which tells a consistent story. Mr. Paul is going to have trouble securing more than about one-third of Republican votes even in the best-case scenario for his campaign:
In last week’s CNN poll, only 39 percent of Republicans said they would consider Mr. Paul’s candidacy. In last week’s Washington Post / ABC News poll, only 37 percent of Republicans said Mr. Paul “has the kind of personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively as president.” According to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this month, just 34 percent of Republican voters consider Mr. Paul to be an “acceptable” nominee. In last week’s Public Policy Polling survey, Mr. Paul’s favorability rating among Republican voters was 34 percent. In this month’s Pew poll, only 33 percent of Republican voters said they would consider voting for Mr. Paul.
Could Mr. Paul start changing minds and converting people who would not consider him now? Perhaps, but Mr. Paul has had similar numbers on these questions all year. Even as far back as 2007, when Mr. Paul was not as well known, these sorts of problems were apparent. And Mr. Paul is just about the last candidate who would pander in order to expand his base of support, which is of course one thing that many supporters love about him.
So realistically, Mr. Paul is going to win at most about 30 or 35 percent of Republican votes in any given state — perhaps inching toward 40 percent with a very good turnout in the right state on the right night.
You can pretty easily win a state with 35 percent support — or even quite a bit less than that. (Mr. Paul has led in several recent Iowa polls with barely more than 20 percent of the vote). But this depends upon the rest of the support being divided fairly evenly among several other candidates.
However, you will not prevail in a one-on-one race with 35 percent. So what Mr. Paul needs is for the Republican field to to remain fractured for as long as possible.
Right now, the biggest impediment to the Republican field remaining divided, and therefore the biggest impediment to Mr. Paul, is Mitt Romney. In my view, he is the only candidate who has the potential to sweep through the first several early voting states and wrap up the nomination early. Mr. Romney’s polling position remains quite strong in New Hampshire. He is also capable of winning Iowa. He is the clear favorite of the Republican establishment and for now he remains acceptable to a majority of Republican voters. If Mr. Romney performs well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he could become the overwhelming favorite for the nomination, with most other candidates dropping out and the outcome being somewhat perfunctory.
In contrast, although other Republicans could still win the nomination, it is likely to require a long slog:
Rick Perry is probably the most acceptable candidate to the establishment after Mr. Romney, and he has the most money after Mr. Romney, and his polling has shown signs of life in Iowa. But he has a lot of work to do to improve upon single-digit support in most states and to quiet the doubts about his campaign that became apparent during the debates. New Hampshire voters do not like Mr. Perry at all, meanwhile — his favorability ratings in one recent survey were lower than those for Barack Obama among Republican primary voters — so he is unlikely to perform well there even if he comes from behind and wins Iowa. Newt Gingrich, although he has some chance of winning both Iowa and New Hampshire, is going to have to overcome a lot of resistance from the Republican establishment, who will be looking to stack the deck against him at every turn. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has a plausible path to victory, but it’s one that involves a long and circuitous route. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have virtually no support and no resources outside of Iowa, and it would take them some time to establish a foundation elsewhere even given favorable momentum.
All of these candidates, like Mr. Paul, would benefit from Mr. Romney slipping up. But some of them might stand a chance against Mr. Romney in a one-on-one race, something that Mr. Paul almost certainly does not.
As the “third wheel” in a Romney-Perry or Romney-Gingrich race, on the other hand, Mr. Paul would potentially have more influence. I do not personally see a path wherein Mr. Paul wins a majority of delegates, but he could certainly control a substantial enough minority to become a power broker at the Republican National Convention, something that is an explicit goal of his campaign.
The irony is that Mr. Paul’s campaign may so far have made Mr. Romney’s path easier. It has released exceptionally effective commercials against Mr. Gingrich, while also feuding with Mrs. Bachmann. If Mr. Paul was a more traditional candidate, this strategy might make sense, since Mrs. Bachmann and especially Mr. Gingrich are threats to win Iowa. Weakening these candidates might also tend to help Mr. Romney, but that would not be Mr. Paul’s major concern.
But Mr. Paul is an unusual candidate; his ability to influence the Republican race depends as much upon the order of finish among the rest of the candidates as how well he does for himself. If Mr. Romney finishes a strong second in Iowa behind Mr. Paul, for instance, that showing will be in line with expectations — enough so that Mr. Romney will probably not relinquish his 17-point lead in New Hampshire and should book a solid win there. That would put Mr. Romney on the inside track for the nomination, with Mr. Paul proving to be little more than a footnote.