Given how accurate Nate Silver was in predicting the primaries in 2008, my basic rule of thumb says: Whatever polls can tell you, Nate has already figured out. His Iowa model is here. Last I looked it had Mitt Romney as the favorite, narrowly ahead of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.
So I start with Nate’s projections and then ask, “What can’t polls tell you?” In caucuses, a lot of factors are impossible to poll, like: Who’s going to show up? A caucus is a bigger time commitment than just voting — it’s an actual business meeting of the local party and takes all evening. So Republicans who are busy Tuesday night or aren’t that interested in politics aren’t going to turn out. On the other hand, all voters willing to change their registrations to Republican are eligible to vote at a Republican caucus, so a certain number of Independents and even Democrats (who nobody has been polling) are going to be there.
Since a caucus is a face-to-face event, a candidate’s supporters get one more chance to convince the undecided. Lots of people (41% in the final Des Moines Register poll) say they could still be convinced to change their minds — how do you poll for that?
So if you want to go beyond what’s in the polls, you need to ask: Who are these mercurial voters? What’s going to make them enthusiastic enough to give up an evening of their lives? And why might they change their minds at the last minute?
For weeks, reporters have been combing the plains of Iowa looking for the typical Republican caucus voter. To me, the one that sounds most authentic comes by way of TPM’s Evan McMorris-Santoro: Curtis Jacob is a religious-right social conservative who voted for Huckabee last time around and thought a few weeks ago that he would vote for Herman Cain.
Jacob describes a three-step process of deciding who to support. First comes the ideological hurdle — the candidate’s got to say the right things. This is a non-factor in this election, because (other than Ron Paul’s isolationism) it’s hard to tell the difference between the candidates’ positions.
Then there’s the authenticity hurdle: “ok, is this person real? — are they the same in person as opposed to the speeches they give?” Jacob eliminates Romney and Huntsman, apparently because he believes their hearts really aren’t in all the social conservative positions they’re taking (and maybe — he doesn’t say this — because they’re Mormons).
Finally he asks who can win.
And that’s why the yo-yo in the polls, because, ok, we think this is what we want, is electable then they get beat up and we think, ‘oh, maybe not.’ So then we go for the next one.
The candidates who have been yo-yoing are the ones he’s choosing among. (Romney has steadily polled around 25% while Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich have each had a boom/bust cycle.)
Of the candidates in Jacob’s acceptable pool, Paul and Santorum are having the final surges. Each has an additional advantage: Santorum’s surge has come so late that nobody is running negative ads against him, and Paul is going to pick up votes from unpolled Democrats who want to end the wars and repeal the Patriot Act.
If Jacob is really typical of undecided Iowa Republicans, you’d expect to see support bleed away from Bachmann, Perry, and Gingrich at the last minute and flow to Santorum or Paul. The final polls (showing Romney narrowly leading) probably accelerate that process. The most persuasive caucus-day message is going to say: If you’re not voting for Santorum or Paul, you’re handing the victory to Romney.
Any of the three could win, but if I had to bet, I’d say Santorum.