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Sizing Up Iowa Without Huckabee

1:17 p.m. | Updated Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run for president in 2012 may be the most consequential event of the Republican primary campaign so far. And nowhere will that impact be felt more than in Iowa, where Mr. Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008.

The good news for Republican candidates: With Mr. Huckabee out of the running, their chances of winning Iowa have improved.

The bad news: Along with those improved odds come increased expectations.

Had Mr. Huckabee won Iowa again, a plausible narrative might have emerged that he was a one-state wonder. Other candidates with strong social-conservative or religious credentials, like Pat Robertson in 1988 and Pat Buchanan in 1996, performed strongly in Iowa but did not gather any particular momentum from it. The same was true of Mr. Huckabee in 2008, of course — he finished a distant third in New Hampshire and failed to win any states outside the South except Kansas.

That narrative may not have been entirely fair to Mr. Huckabee. Against what is probably a weaker field this time around, he would have had a pretty good chance of becoming the nominee. Still, with every other candidate trying to spin the story and diminish the importance of a Huckabee victory in Iowa, the narrative could have provided some cover. Now the rest of the field will have fewer excuses for a losing performance in the state.


Iowa Republicans and New Hampshire Republicans are awfully different from one another. Based on exit polls in 2008, the Iowa electorate in general contains, proportionally speaking, roughly twice as many rural voters, seniors, and voters who describe themselves as “very conservative” — and almost three times as many evangelical Christians — as New Hampshire’s. Conversely, New Hampshire has twice as many high-income voters, and three times as many independents, as Iowa. Although Republican voters are more homogeneous than Democratic ones, it’s quite challenging for the same candidate to win both states, either in the party nominating contests or in general elections.

Keeping that in mind, let’s take stock of the new Iowa landscape, candidate by candidate.

Mitt Romney. A clear second in the Iowa polls when Mr. Huckabee was still in the running, Mr. Romney will presumably take over first place now. But that may not be an honor to relish: any talk of his “skipping” Iowa, something reporters should already have regarded skeptically, will seem utterly ridiculous now.

Mr. Romney led in the polls in Iowa for months before eventually finishing second there to Mr. Huckabee in 2008. But it was the candidate who finished in fourth place that time, John McCain, who caused Mr. Romney the most problems, by somehow claiming momentum from the result and surging past Mr. Romney in New Hampshire.

A repeat of this scenario is the one that Mr. Romney should most fear. If a populist candidate like Sarah Palin won in Iowa and Mr. Romney finished a strong second, that might not be so bad for him: he’d have a good opportunity to recover in New Hampshire, eventually setting up a conservative-versus-moderate “play-off” in the later states.

But if Mr. Romney were to be overtaken in Iowa by a candidate like Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels — someone who had a plausible chance of winning in New Hampshire as well — he’d be in a great deal of trouble. As we saw in 2008, even a second-place finish might not be enough if his performance were billed as a disappointment by the press. It’s quite a dilemma — particularly for a candidate who is increasingly facing criticism from media outlets that are influential within the conservative establishment, like The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

Then again, there’s also a big opportunity for Mr. Romney. If he wins in Iowa, he should also win in New Hampshire, Nevada and Michigan, early states where he also polls strongly. And that would make him very likely to become the Republican nominee, and to have plenty of time to prepare for a general-election campaign against President Obama.

Michele Bachmann. Iowa is almost certainly a must-win for Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota. It’s quite possibly her strongest state, given its conservative leanings and the fact that she was born in Waterloo and has the backing of some key elected officials there. If Ms. Bachmann does not win this contest, it’s hard to see how she will become anything other than a footnote in the campaign.

For some of the same reasons, Ms. Bachmann may be the candidate whom a number of the others root for in Iowa, if they decide they cannot win the state themselves. Ms. Bachmann could more credibly be dismissed as a regional and demographic quirk. But she is sufficiently skilled politician that a victory there could give her a plausible chance at the nomination.

Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich is another candidate whose viability depends very much on a strong showing — probably meaning first place — in Iowa. Mr. Gingrich seems to recognize this: his critique of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan on “Meet the Press” on Sunday seemed like a play for older and poorer Iowa voters, perhaps at the expense of alienating younger and wealthier but more libertarian-minded ones in New Hampshire. Although Mr. Gingrich is more likely than Ms. Bachmann to be able to follow up a victory in Iowa with another — perhaps in South Carolina or Florida, states that border his native Georgia — he’ll have to take care of matters in the Hawkeye State first.

Sarah Palin. Although Ms. Palin’s situation is not far removed from that of Ms. Bachmann or Mr. Gingrich, she might be able to plausibly continue the race after a strong second- or even third-place showing in Iowa, simply because expectations for her have fallen so low.

Still, Iowa is not inherently a difficult state for Ms. Palin, since it has lots of voters of modest means and a culturally conservative world view. If she is at all serious about winning the Republican nomination, she would be far better off getting to work in the state — (she hasn’t spent much time there recently) — and scoring a legitimately strong finish rather than hoping for some kind of bank-shot.

With the exit of Mr. Huckabee and the diminished standing of Donald Trump — two candidates with whom she competed for voters and bandwidth — Ms. Palin’s prospects look brighter now than they have in weeks. If she does not seize take some firm steps toward entering the race now, it’s probably going to be never.

Tim Pawlenty. Mr. Pawlenty has had a fine couple of weeks. He performed credibly in the first Republican debate in South Carolina, and should benefit from the increasing dissatisfaction of Republican elites with Mr. Romney. And now, his chances of winning Iowa — a state that his advisors have made no secret of their desire to win — have improved significantly.

Still, there are a couple of risks for Mr. Pawlenty. One would be letting expectations get too high too soon. Insiders will look at his evangelical roots, the amount of time that he’s invested in Iowa, and the fact that he’s from a neighboring state (Minnesota): if you polled political correspondents rather than voters, Mr. Pawlenty would probably be considered the favorite to win Iowa right now. Mr. Pawlenty would like to preserve a scenario where he finishes second to a candidate like Mr. Gingrich but is nevertheless perceived as having performed well in the state; that may be harder now. At the very least, Mr. Pawlenty probably must finish ahead of Mr. Romney now, rather than merely coming close.

The other risk for Mr. Pawlenty would lie in his moving too far to his right to fill the void left by Mr. Huckabee. Although Mr. Pawlenty’s positions are quite conservative when you look under the hood, he is often perceived as a moderate, and that will work to his benefit in states like New Hampshire. But it’s a difficult balance to strike, especially for a candidate who does not sweep voters off their feet, and must instead make very strong tactical decisions. So far, Mr. Pawlenty has done that, but we’re entering a different phase of the race now.

Mitch Daniels. Though he is an evangelical and a Midwesterner, Mr. Daniels is probably less an Iowa candidate than a New Hampshire candidate. In New Hampshire, his fiscal conservatism and wonkish demeanor should go over well — after all, the state voted for Paul Tsongas. So he may be the candidate most likely to replicate what Mr. McCain did in 2008, and slingshot from a strong second- or third-place finish in Iowa to a victory in the Granite State.

But he’ll have problems if Mr. Romney finishes first in Iowa, or if Mr. Pawlenty finishes ahead of him in any order. An Iowa result like . . .

1. Bachmann 30%
2. Romney 23%
3. Daniels 19%

. . . might keep him alive; any number of other permutations might not work. Moreover, Mr. Daniels, like Ms. Palin and some other candidates, may be punished by Iowa voters for having dithered over whether to enter the race; the state rewards candidates who establish a presence there early.

Jon Huntsman. Almost certainly the most moderate of the plausible Republican candidates, Mr. Huntsman is a long shot to win in Iowa. Virtually nothing in the state works to his benefit, from its high number of born-again Christians to the fact that, until very recently, he was spending his time in Beijing rather than Bettendorf.

In fact, the Republican calendar as whole is problematic for Mr. Huntsman. Demographically, South Carolina Republicans are more like Iowa Republicans than you might think, and the 2008 version of Mitt Romney — the candidate to whom Mr. Huntsman arguably bears the most resemblance — performed disappointingly there. Florida is more moderate, but perhaps not moderate enough; about 40 percent of its voters are evangelical Christians. In Michigan, he’ll be at a disadvantage competing against some combination of Mr. Romney — whose father was governor there — and Midwesterners like Mr. Daniels and Mr. Pawlenty. The coastal states that will vote on Super Tuesday, especially California, might be fertile ground for Mr. Huntsman, but he may never get there.

That leaves New Hampshire and Nevada: a credible performance in the first and a win in the second could keep him viable. The question is whether he can perform decently enough in Iowa to build up some momentum, even if the expectations for him there are not high. The problem is not so much that Mr. Huntsman will have done poorly, but that by definition, some other candidates will have done well: Mr. Daniels, for instance, appeals to some of the same voters, and if Mr. Daniels finishes ahead of Mr. Huntsman in Iowa, it is hard to envision those positions being reversed in the next couple of states.

Put bluntly, I don’t think that Mr. Huntsman controls his own destiny. He needs some combination of Mr. Daniels deciding not to enter the race and a stumble by Mr. Pawlenty or Mr. Romney. Mr. Huntsman probably receives the least benefit of any candidate from Mr. Huckabee’s decision not to run.

Now for the lightning round: the positioning of some remaining candidates who constitute the third tier of the field.

Rick Santorum. The most socially conservative of the candidates, Mr. Santorum could pick off a few of Mr. Huckabee’s voters, and a win in Iowa cannot entirely be ruled out. But he might have no more success in subsequent states than Pat Robertson did, and a victory in Iowa could be seen as a fluke, giving the rest of the field a mulligan.

Herman Cain. Mr. Cain may have different skin pigmentation than Mr. Huckabee, but the candidates otherwise have a lot in common. I’m still formulating an opinion about what his upside potential is. To the extent that he has a chance at all, he’ll have to do well enough in Iowa that he can eventually win some Southern states, like South Carolina.

Ron Paul. Mr. Paul’s eccentric but enthusiastic base of supporters seems to be fairly constant from state to state — somewhere around 10 percent of the electorate both in the polls and at the ballot booth. They’re also the sorts of voters who might not vote at all in a Republican primary unless they vote for Mr. Paul. If Mr. Paul were, hypothetically, to garner anything like 20 percent of the vote in Iowa, we’d be in an alternate universe where virtually anything could happen.

Donald Trump. The same goes, by and large, for Donald Trump, except that there is probably even less chance of such a bizarro achievement for him. Iowans take their politics pretty seriously, and Mr. Trump’s record is exceptionally unlikely to hold up under their scrutiny. Update: After this post was initially published, Mr. Trump said he would not seek the 2012 nomination.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.