The Iowa caucuses are finally upon us and after a year of debates, campaign speeches and fundraising actual voters will get their first say in deciding who will be the Republican nominee to challenge President Obama. Iowa has a long history as the first state to weigh in on presidential candidates, but they don’t always get it right. In 2008 former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won the state and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the eventual nominee, finished fourth. So Iowa is not always a predictor of who will win the nomination.
Here are some things to keep an eye on for each candidate tonight and tomorrow after Iowa declares its winner:
Mitt Romney: If Romney wins tonight in Iowa we might be in for a very short nomination fight. With an anticipated victory next week in New Hampshire as well, Romney could potentially win the first two contests, further cementing his image as the inevitable nominee. The final polls show that Romney has a legitimate shot at winning tonight too.
Newt Gingrich: A few weeks ago it seemed that Gingrich might walk away with an easy victory in Iowa, but since then he has been hammered relentlessly, primarily by Romney and Ron Paul, and his candidacy has faded. He could very well pull off a win still, but more than likely he will move on to New Hampshire with another blow to his candidacy. Look for Gingrich to make his last stand in South Carolina.
Rick Santorum: Santorum is the latest momentum, anti-Romney candidate to emerge and he could be doing so at just the right time. Santorum has practically lived in Iowa this year, but even a win tonight in Iowa would not really alter his trajectory in this race. Santorum would need to immediately translate an Iowa win into some major fundraising to have the resources to campaign seriously going forward, and it’s not clear that he has the organization in place to capitalize. Put another way, it’s not likely he will be this year’s Mike Huckabee and translate an Iowa win into a second place finish for the nomination.
Rick Perry: Perry has made a hard play for the Christian, conservative vote in Iowa, but will likely live to fight another day even if he loses in Iowa. He’s raised enough money to stay in the race and will probably camp out in South Carolina after tonight and make a serious play to win the first Southern primary. That said, he could really use at least a top 3 finish to stay competitive and change the narrative that he’s already an also-ran.
Michele Bachmann: It seems like Bachmann is the most likely candidate to drop out of the race with a poor showing in Iowa. After spending the bulk of her time in the state, and touting her Iowa nativeness, she could easily end up outside the top 5 tonight in Iowa. It’s hard to see how she stays in the race after that.
Ron Paul: Paul is the wildcard. He could end up winning Iowa or he could finish in third or fourth place. Either way, Paul will stay in the fight until the bitter end. He might have the most passionate following of anyone in the race, and if his organization can turn them out tonight there’s a good chance Paul could walk away from Iowa the winner.
Jon Huntsman: Is it 2016 yet?
Mitt Romney is in the best position of the field heading into the caucuses. If he wins, the nomination fight is practically a foregone conclusion based on his strength in New Hampshire and the fact that the establishment is beginning to coalesce around him. Even if he loses, Iowa was never supposed to be his strongest showing and it doesn’t dent his momentum moving forward.
If Romney loses in Iowa though, expect the next big showdown to be in South Carolina where Perry and Gingrich will likely dig in to not only blunt Romney’s momentum, but capture some of their own heading toward Florida and Super Tuesday.