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Morning Jay: A Primer on the Iowa Caucus

6:00 AM, Dec 30, 2011 • By JAY COST
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4. It’s a long month ahead. One thing is for sure – the field will be winnowed after Tuesday. There are four self-proclaimed conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney – Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Santorum. It’s hard to think that all four of them can survive, especially if Romney and Paul finish in the top two. Given all of the effort that these candidates have poured into Iowa, it might be hard for any of them to justify continuing their campaigns even after a fourth place finish, let alone a fifth or sixth place result.

These candidates might not recognize the writing on the wall right away, but the media will make it clear enough. The big problem for these conservative alternatives is that there really is no major contest for them until January 21, in South Carolina. That leaves them susceptible to a kind of media “death watch” for the next two weeks. Absent alternative news that might buoy their prospects, those back-of-the-pack finishers will be forced to answer questions for two weeks about why they are still in the race, whether they think they can honestly win, and so on. This is how fields get winnowed.

5. Iowa has the most to lose. As much as these anti-Romney candidates have on the line, the Hawkeye State has even more. It is a substantial privilege being the first contest in the country, and Iowa has had a terrible track record in pointing toward the ultimate nominee. In 2008 Huckabee won the caucus with a solid, nine-point victory, but failed to go anywhere after that. In 1980 George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan, and in 1988 Pat Robertson actually placed second.

Iowa could effectively lose its plum spot if major candidates stop contesting it, which is very possible if it throws up another quirky result. Huntsman has already declined to contest it actively, and if Ron Paul ends up winning, that could add fuel to the anti-Iowa fire. That’s not to say that it will technically lose its first-in-the-nation position, but if big time candidates start boycotting it, then it could effectively be pushed aside in 2016 or 2020.

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