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By Jay Cost

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The Dynamics of the GOP Race in Iowa

Jonathan Martin had an interesting column in Sunday's Politico about the GOP race in Iowa. This is what he had to say:

As the battle for Iowa enters the home stretch, the race appears to be breaking down along a simple fault line: Mike Huckabee's momentum and passion versus Mitt Romney's organization.

What one has the other lacks. [snip]

All the mojo seems to be with Huckabee - a Newsweek poll released Friday shows him ahead of Romney by a staggering 39 percent to 17 percent margin.

But Iowa veterans warn that while Huckabee is all the rage, it's almost impossible to win in Iowa without an organization - and Huckabee's is skeletal. "A poll is a poll in Iowa," observes Ed Failor Jr., a longtime Iowa Republican and anti-tax leader based in Muscatine who is currently undecided. "But it's different than turning out voters on caucus night."

I generally agree with Martin's characterization of the Iowa race. However, I think there are a few important caveats to make.

First, Huckabee is still in what might be called a "honeymoon" phase. Voters are just now learning about him. This is important because when voters do not know very much about a candidate, they tend to ascribe to him the qualities that they prefer - even if the candidate might not possess those qualities. It is kind of like projection. Larry Bartels found this to be the case for Carter in 1976, Bush in 1980, and Hart in 1984. My intuition is that something like this is happening with Huckabee. If so, that would be good news for the Romney campaign - which can use its resources and its remaining time to educate Iowans about how Huckabee is not the best thing since sliced bread. And so, Huckabee's numbers might be artificially high right now.

Second, I remain unconvinced that Huckabee will necessarily need a strong GOTV organization to win the caucus. Last month's ABC News/WaPo poll found that Huckabee has a huge lead among those who have previously attended a caucus. Romney, on the other hand, was winning among those who have never previously attended a caucus. So, Huckabee might have found a core of supporters who do not need to be mobilized actively, while Romney might need to use his full GOTV efforts just to get to the numbers he's registering in the opinion polls. Relatedly, this caucus is probably the most intense in the history on the Republican side. High intensity campaigns can have the effect of increasing voter turnout. We might find, in other words, the same kind of irony that manifested itself at Ames, where Romney and Brownback worked to get people to the straw poll, some of whom supported Huckabee.

Third, I think it is wrong to discount the passion of Romney supporters. I'd wager that Romney has a floor of something around 20% in these polls - and that is an important asset in a five-way race.

Fourth, I will be interested to see what happens with Fred Thompson - who apparently has decided to make a final stand in the Hawkeye State. As Stephen Hayes wrote on Friday - Thompson has decided to spend every day but Christmas campaigning in Iowa. He does not believe that he can wait until South Carolina - whose primary is sixteen days after the Iowa Caucus - to have a decent show. This is probably a necessary move for Thompson, who will probably not win Iowa - but, this effort could make it so that he places respectably. Hayes writes:

Thompson has said publicly that he needs to finish in the top three in Iowa. Campaign officials say that a strong third place finish--presumably behind new frontrunner Mike Huckabee and former frontrunner Mitt Romney--would likely give them enough momentum to survive New Hampshire and compete in South Carolina and beyond. A second place finish would be a victory. "Just when the interest is there the greatest, is when we'll be here the most."

It will be interesting to see if this thrust yields him voters - and, if so, where they come from. The RCP average currently indicates that about 15% of Republican respondents are undecided. Thompson could sample heavily from them if this trip is successful. But he might also steal votes from Huckabee or Romney. I certainly think that the Thompson campaign hopes to take votes from both - in recent days it has attacked the Romney campaign on changing stances on social issues and it has gone after the Huckabee campaign for not knowing enough about Iran.

Finally, the Huckabee campaign gets an A-for-effort for this little gem, but I am not buying:

It's enough to delight Huckabee's camp, but also cause to make supporters worry that expectations are rising too high too soon.

"Folks need to calm down here," says Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa director.

"We've said from day one, back there in January, the objective is to finish in the top three. It's always been to finish in the top three and that's still the objective today."

Nice try. I always get a kick out of campaigns trying to manage expectations - especially when they make silly statements like this (which they often do). If Huckabee finishes in third, he is finished.

-Jay Cost