Anyone who has followed the polling and the media circus over the past several months knows that former Governor Mitt Romney, in most state national polls, has hovered around 22%. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.
Throughout the campaign, various candidates and non-candidates have surged past Romney in national and state polls, gaining several points and tying or going past Romney's poll numbers. Quite literally every candidate competing in Iowa has benefited from the "Not Romney" bump at some point, currently being enjoyed by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Keep in mind that many states have moved their primary dates or caucuses, de-emphasizing the "Super Tuesday" primaries and spreading out over several months so the nomination process might go on for several weeks, if not months, before a clear winner can be found. The question is if these candidates can last that long.
JON HUNTSMAN: Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, decided not to compete in Iowa and is focusing squarely on New Hampshire. Huntsman, intentionally or not, started his campaign as the moderate of the field, but his record as a governor of a red state shows a very conservative record that would resonate well with Republicans in Iowa. At the very least, his name recognition would've been helped if he got the "Not Romney" surge at some point. His decision not to compete in Iowa may be his downfall.
The only benefit Huntsman might get from the Iowa caucuses is unintentional. If Romney's placing in Iowa is perceived as "weak", look for Romney supporters in New Hampshire to look for a new home.
Michele Bachmann: I continue to maintain that Bachmann as a candidate is performing very well in the past few weeks. She's been one of the only candidates to be both assertive and aggressive during the debates, going after Gingrich on a number of issues and going toe-to-toe with Congressman Ron Paul on Iran. Her interviews have been spot on, she's no longer saying crazy ass shit like "HPV vaccines might kill you". Even though her political views line up heavily with establishment Republican views, she's painted herself as an outsider very well.
That all being said, similar to Santorum, her campaign is on fumes. Of the four candidates running in Iowa as "Not Romney/conservative", she will be hit hard if she finishes in the bottom of the pack. If she finishes bottom three in the caucuses, look for her to scale back in South Carolina, if not completely drop out.
Newt Gingrich: The former Speaker's poll numbers have taken a HUGE dive from the Romney/Paul/Perry Super PACs' negative ads. But he's spent relatively little money on his campaign so far, so if he wants to, he can limp to North Hampshire and campaign there. I think he'll easily be in the bottom three along with Bachmann and Huntsman.
Why New Hampshire? Gingrich received the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union General, a conservative newspaper in New Hampshire. If he doesn't campaign there to be Not Romney, the newspaper may very well endorse someone else!
Rick Perry: Governor Perry is one of four Governors in the race, but his campaign, like Huntsman, has been badly managed. He got in much later than almost everyone else. His debate performance has been, at best, disappointing. There have been persistent rumors that he is quite literally on drugs due to major back surgery he was recovering from before he entered the campaign, which would explain his erratic behavior in debates and interviews.
And his message has sucked too. He started by campaigning on the "Texas miracle" of job creation, and has suddenly ditched that and campaigned heavily on social conservatism.
That all being said, he is still one of the best positioned candidates to survive and carry on to South Carolina. He seems to be running a serious campaign with a good ground game. He's got access to Texas money, something many of the non-Romney candidates lack. Unlike other candidates who have to really stretch on how they relate to those who work for a living, Perry grew up poor as dirt. He has more electoral experience running state wide, in a big state, than anyone else in the race.
I've been saying for a while not to count Perry out. On paper, he seems like the perfect candidate to bring the Republican establishment and the conservative-Tea Party-ish base together. He should easily finish fourth, but it'll be hard for him to overcome the Santorum surge and the base support that Paul and Romney have.
Rick Santorum: Santorum is the current "Not Romney" pick, but he's essentially lived in Iowa for a year. His campaign has little money, and he's hitching rides with volunteers. His campaign is running on fumes and he has no presence elsewhere and it isn't likely he'd be able to build a multi-state campaign even if he came in first.
But Santorum can easily be in the top three in the Iowa caucuses. Even liberal MSNBC host Ed Schultz says that Santorum is personable and answers questions directly and doesn't settle for bullet pointed answers. A recent Public Policy Polling poll shows he has a 60% favorability rating, meaning a lot of people would LIKE to vote for him!
Santorum coming in at three essentially hinders the other "conservatives" in the race and helps to further divide the four candidates competing for the title of "conservative".
Mitt Romney: Romney's overall support isn't really all that much then the votes he got in 2008. But he seems to have a good campaign going, he's appearing in Iowa (finally), and his base is motivated enough to show up for the polls. He should easily finish in the top two.
Ron Paul: Paul's supporters are fanatics and if there's one primary or caucus he can flat out win, it's this one. Look for them to go all out. But like Romney, Paul's support has a cap. He has limited appeal to Republicans and, similar to President Obama in 2008, is relying a lot on first-time caucus voters to make up his base.
Paul finishing in the top two won't do much to boost his own campaign, but will greatly hurt anyone else lower on the ballot.
On a final note, Paul's son, Senator Rand Paul of Tennessee, has been campaigning with his father lately. I think Ron won't run as an independent if only to not hurt his son's reputation with the Republican Party. His son's reputation has been he's more willing to play ball within the body of the Senate, and because of that, might be able to get into a leadership position or a Presidential appointment. I think they both realize that the best bets to make change in politics is within the Republican Party, and going third party will guarantee anything they've worked for will mean nothing.
Predictions for the Iowa caucuses:
7. Jon Huntsman
6. Michele Bachmann
5. Newt Gingrich
4. Rick Perry
3. Rick Santorum
2. Mitt Romney
1. Ron Paul