I was thinking about this after writing the Newt post and almost talked myself into believing it. Follow my logic: If Romney wins Iowa, he becomes a prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire and suddenly a very real threat to run the table in South Carolina and Florida. And everyone on the right knows it, which is why there’ll instantly be a mad scramble among the great Not Romney majority to line up behind another candidate who can block him — if not in New Hampshire, then certainly in South Carolina. That probably means Newt or Perry, but we’ll have to see how things shake out for the two of them in Iowa before we know which will still be viable. Either way, it’s a problem for Mitt. If Gingrich finishes a strong second in Iowa, say, then the base will rally to him to try to stop Romney in SC and elsewhere in the south. That could mean a long primary for Romney, one which he’ll probably win but which he’d much prefer not to experience.
But what if Paul wins Iowa and Romney finishes second? Who does the great Not Romney majority line up behind then? Maybe Gingrich or Perry still, depending again upon how they finish in Iowa and how they’re polling in the other early states, but if Paul gets a huge bounce in NH from his caucus win, then Romney could be vulnerable in New Hampshire too. (Paul himself expects Iowa to be a springboard for him in the northeast.) If that happens and suddenly mainstream conservatives are staring down the barrel of Ron Paul winning both of the early states, I’m thinking you’ll see quite a few Not Romney voters magically metamorphose into Not Paul voters and opt for … Romney. Which is to say, Ron Paul’s the only candidate in the field, I think, capable of transforming the basic dynamic of the primary from a referendum on Romney into a referendum on him and his foreign policy. If that happened, with Romney now seen as the lesser of two evils and both Gingrich and Perry afterthoughts for most of the electorate, he might sweep to victory in the rest of the states as the mainstream electable alternative to Paul. No long primary, no social-conservative champion rising from the waves after New Hampshire to try to take him down. Just him pulling 60+ percent against Paul. What’s not to love if you’re on Team Mitt?
Like I say, I almost believe this — but don’t quite. When I tweeted about it, the Times’s stats expert, Nate Silver, tweeted back that Romney would be a 90+ percent favorite for the nomination if he won Iowa and maybe an 80+ percent favorite if he finished a close second to Paul. I can buy that; momentum matters, and the momentum from a win will matter more than momentum from a strong second. Rich Lowry replied with a good point, too: Would there really be a scramble to line up behind Romney or anyone else if Paul wins Iowa? His hardcore supporters are the only people who seriously believe he could be nominated; even if he was nominated, some mainstream conservative would inevitably run as a third-party candidate and end up siphoning off much of the base. There’s simply no reason to panic if RP wins the caucuses and/or New Hampshire. All of which is very logical; I just wonder if maybe it’s too logical. Many mainstream Republican voters would chafe at seeing Paul claim a key primary, I think, not so much because they fear he’d go all the way but because they find aspects of his record and his foreign policy contemptible. They’d want to repudiate him, if only as a point of pride, and Romney would be the guy best positioned to do that in the early primaries. Also, the better Paul does early on, the likelier it is that he’ll build media buzz and be encouraged to long a run race through the primaries or later as a third-party candidate. If you want to beat him in a way that’s meaningful to the general election, you need to do it early.