The Invisible Primary officially morphs into the Visible Primary today as Iowa Republicans caucus to pick an opponent for President Barack Obama. Some thoughts:
1. The common pundit wisdom is that if Mitt Romney a) finishes in the top three tonight and b) beats Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, the Republican nominating contest is over. The betting markets also seem to more or less agree with that assessment. Intrade places the odds for tonight as follows: Romney 49.5 percent, Ron Paul 28.3 percent, Rick Santorum 21.2 percent, and everyone else a penny stock, including Gingrich and Perry. Overall, Intrade gives Romney an 80 percent chance of grabbing the nomination, an all-time high which might scoot to 90 percent if the above scenario plays out as expected.
2. So what scenarios are contained in the 20 percent probability that Romney is not the GOP nominee? Maybe this one: Romney has a weaker-than-expected showing in Iowa—finishes a distant third or fourth, Perry and Gingrich spectacularly outperform—and he stumbles into New Hampshire. (A Suffolk University poll out last night has Romney at 41 percent, Paul 15 percent, Gingrich 11 percent, and Jon Huntsman 9 percent.) Then Romney stumbles again—perhaps Huntsman’s up-close-and-personal campaign pays off—and he heads into South Carolina with zero momentum and loads of negative media from a press corp hungry for a long-and-bitter nomination fight. And with the process front-loaded with proportional delegate contests, the long, brutal march to Tampa is underway.
3. And what if Romney does well in Iowa and handily wins New Hampshire? Again, the nominating contest is structured to prevent an early nominee. And it seems like Paul intends to go the distance. Perhaps buyer’s remorse kicks in, as it often does, allowing some other candidate—Perry, Gingrich, Huntsman—to emerge or reemerge down the road. That, along with Paul continuing to pick off delegates, leads to a disputed convention. Not likely, though.
4. So if Romney is the overwhelming favorite at this point to be the 2012 GOP nominee, what are his chances of beating Obama? Incumbents usually win 70 percent of the time, but not those as unpopular as Obama. Intrade has the race at 50-50. Probably about right.