DES MOINES, Iowa — Politics is a game of expectations, stories and surprises, and nowhere more than in Iowa, where the actual numbers of convention delegates won has traditionally mattered much less than the sense of trajectory and momentum.
While the candidates give speeches and shake hands, their teams of consultants devote themselves to spinning reporters and managing expectations. They want us to expect their candidate to do badly, and to be surprised when he does well. And while we wait for some 100,000 Iowa Republicans to weigh in on the nation’s future, here’s what we expect will be expected of each of the six Republican candidates competing here.
3. Mitt Romney
The Romney campaign couldn’t keep its talking points straight on Monday, at once seeking to downplay expectations and guarantee victory in the caucuses.
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom primed the media for a loss on caucus night, rejecting a reporter’s assertion that Romney’s second place finish in 2008 was a disappointment.
“I don’t know why that was considered a loss,” he said. “In 2008 we finished ahead of some better known names like McCain, Thompson, and Giuliani.”
Neither McCain nor Giuliani contested Iowa.
A few minutes later Stuart Stevens, another senior advisor, said that Romney would win a plurality of conservative and tea party votes in Iowa — that will only happen if he wins the caucus.
Romney himself waded into the fray, declaring at a rally in Marion that he will win the caucuses and the nomination. Almost immediately Romney staffers tried to re-interpret their boss’s remarks, but they were clear enough to anyone paying attention.
Romney has set the bar at total victory, and anything short will be a setback.
5. Ron Paul
Rep. Ron Paul is immune from the expectations game. Even if he wins, no one expects a national Paul surge. He has a core of supporters who would never consider another candidate, and they’ve stayed with him this cycle as the other GOP candidates have boomed and come crashing down earth, and there is no reason to expect that to change.
One prominent Iowa Romney supporter dismissed Paul’s strength as the irrelevant product of Democrats and Independents participating in the Iowa Caucuses, previewing the campaign’s response. But Paul supporters say his message has spread beyond that hard core.
Even if he loses, the libertarian stalwart isn’t going anywhere, maintaining his role as right-wing agitator, even if he has no clear path to the Republican nomination.
7. Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum is a familiar Iowa species: The surging grassroots conservative. And Mike Huckabee set the expectation for that candidate in 2008: Winning.
Santorum benefits from the Ron Paul exception: Because Paul is widely viewed as a curiosity whose supporters descend from flying saucers, he can afford to lose to Paul.
But Santorum simply can’t afford to lose to Mitt Romney. Because if he can’t beat Mitt Romney here in conservative Iowa, how can he beat Romney anywhere else?
9. Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich has conceded that he will lose the caucuses, but the question is how far he will fall. The former poll leader is now in fourth — and dropping.
Failure to out together a strong showing here may be his undoing, with so much of his candidacy built on this false sense of electability. If Perry hurdles him, his candidacy will likely be dead for the second time this cycle — but this time for good.
11. Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry placed in fifth in Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll, despite having spent millions in advertising to introduce himself to Hawkeye State voters, and even more to attack his opponents.
To avoid being left for dead on the plains of Iowa, he must pass Newt Gingrich and rise to at least forth — keeping hopes alive for a South Carolina miracle.
Perry has aggressively targeted Rick Santorum in recent days, but his negative ads are only airing on the Internet — and it’s likely too little, too late.
13. Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Republican Party’s August straw poll, a huge event that includes many caucus-goers. She could have been a contender.
But she never recovered from Perry’s entrance into her conservative space in the race, and now she’s expected to lose outright despite being the only woman in a a six-way field.
The corollary: In the exceedingly unlikely event that she somehow pulls ahead of the other conservatives, she’s back in the game.