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.