According to the New York Times, the Iowa caucuses are still up in the air. Okay, true enough, even if the paper is sort of stating the obvious. But while he may lose the battle, I think we can now safely say Mitt Romney is well on his way to winning the war.
Why is this? Because for all the money and time Mitt has poured into winning Iowa, the best-case scenario for Romney may well be that no clear frontrunner emerges from the caucuses -- Mitt Romney included.
I know. It sounds crazy. Why wouldn't Romney want to win in Iowa? But I think if you look at the dynamics of the race, it makes sense.
Right now, you have Romney and a field of competitors, who are widely perceived as being more genuinely conservative than Romney. Romney perhaps has the organizational advantage -- he's been at this a long, long time -- and, relative to most of the competition, the financial advantage. But he has one crippling weakness: the simple, unavoidable reality that a huge number of Republican partisans absolutely do not want him to be the nominee. And thus, we have the rhythmic Dance of the Not-Romneys, each taking their turn at the head of the field and then receding dutifully into the background, as the 20-30% of Republican voters who are chiefly voting against Romney shift their allegiances.
Romney can't quite conclusively take the lead, but the Anti-Romney forces don't have the numbers to overwhelm his candidacy, and anyway, their own candidates keep imploding.
Ultimately, though, something is going to have to shift the balance of power, so to speak. There has to be a winner. And I really see only a couple of ways to break the stalemate.
Scenario A: The field stays crowded. Romney fails to score an early KO on any of his opponents. Everyone thinks they have a shot, and most of them stay in the race. Over the long haul, Romney's financial and organizational advantage becomes more important. The Iowan political scene is oversaturated, but advertising can actually move the needle in other states. Without a clear alternative, Republicans eventually throw up their hands and settle for the Mormon from Massachusetts.
Scenario B: Iowa winnows the field. One candidate wins by a large margin, and most of the Not-Romneys drop out. And here's the thing: I just don't believe that anyone who was voting for Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum would jump happily into Romney's camp. More likely, these voters will coalesce around whatever Not-Romney is still remaining. Undivided, the Not-Romneys actually become stronger.
Think about this way: there are enough people in the Republican Party who oppose Mitt Romney to catapult Rick Perry, and then Herman Cain, and then Newt Gingrich to the front of the pack almost overnight. And that's when the field is fractured. Add in most of the 20-30% that the other Not-Romneys were collectively receiving, and suddenly the Anti-Romney forces aren't picking temporary frontrunners... they're picking the nominee.
Romney's best strategy, then, is divide and conquer. And the only way his opposition stays divided is if as many of them stay in the race as possible. And if anyone, including Mitt Romney, wins decisively in Iowa, the field is going narrow very quickly. (The sole exception here is Ron Paul. Everybody knows Paul can't win the nomination, so it's possible nobody will drop out if Paul takes Iowa.) Fortunately for Mitt, right now, Iowa looks like a photo finish. And that brings him one step closer to the White House.