Mitt Romney should be the clear leader in Iowa. He has the money, the name recognition, the organization, the past campaign experience in the state...... yet he has struggled to break above the low 20's in polling. Iowans, like most of the rest of the country, clearly are hesitant about him. Romney's support has stayed fairly consistent throughout the year, while practically every other candidate has leapfrogged him to the lead (and subsequently plummeted while the next 'Not Romney' candidate took the lead). I think that Romney faces a very real possibility of coming in third in Iowa. Will it hurt him? I don't think it damages him too much, because next week is the New Hampshire primary, where he has a formidable 20+ point lead. Iowa is more about who will challenge Romney than how much it helps or hurts Romney.
It's no coincidence that two of the top candidates in Iowa were candidates in 2008. Ron Paul has an extensive network in this state that stems from his previous presidential run - an advantage that only Romney also enjoys among the other candidates. Polling showed Paul leading or tied with Romney until about a week ago, when his numbers slipped a few points. While I think he will be in the top three, I don't think that the undecideds will break heavily in Paul's favor, instead going to candidates like Santorum and Perry.
Santorum has been surging here in the last week and a half - fruit from spending almost his entire campaign in Iowa. Nobody has visited the state more, and it looks to finally be paying off. A week ago, he was in sixth place. Now he's in third, with an upward trajectory. More so than any other candidate, Santorum needs a top three finish in Iowa, but preferably a top two. He has practically no ground game anywhere else, so his path to the nomination depends on momentum out of Iowa. Coming in fourth kills his campaign; however, I think he has a real possibility of finishing first.
Like Paul, Perry, Bachmann, and Herman Cain, Gingrich peaked in Iowa too early. Third place looks like the best possible scenario that Gingrich can achieve at this point, but that is pretty unlikely. Gingrich's ground organization doesn't appear to be as well organized as other candidates, a key component of performing well in caucuses. He needs new life breathed into his campaign, and a poor showing in Iowa will not help his fading chances in the next states.
Perry's campaign appears to have recovered some from its earlier doldrums, and can likely jump into fourth in Iowa. A third place finish which would be very big for his campaign, but I don't think it will happen. He seems to have a good organization on the ground, and has enough money to fund operations in multiple states (unlike Santorum, Bachmann, Huntsman, and possibly Gingrich). Perry needs a good showing in Iowa in order to show viability; a fifth or sixth place would be detrimental to his campaign.
Bachmann has to perform well in Iowa. She has staked most of her campaign on the state, and at one time was the frontrunner here (a title nearly every candidate has owned at one point or another). Unfortunately for her, polling just isn't showing a new spark of life - she currently is in sixth in just about every poll out there. She needs to be fourth to really justify continuing her campaign.
Huntsman opted to not compete in Iowa, and is instead focusing solely on the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday. His hope is for Romney to do poorly in Iowa, in order to make the case to New Hampshire voters that Romney can't win, leaving Huntsman as the viable option.
How will it end up?
I'm going to take a stab and jot down some thoughts on the results.
Santorum - 23%Comment with your predictions, here or on Facebook, and see how close you get to the final results.
Romney - 21%
Paul - 20%
Perry - 15%
Gingrich - 10%
Bachmann - 9%
Huntsman - 2%
Other - <1%