An outright victory is nothing to sneeze at, but the real key is to leave Iowa with strong momentum for the other early-primary states.
If it's the Iowa caucuses, it must be time for those magical political words: "better than expected." In the 36 years since Iowa has mattered in the presidential nomination process, doing better than expected has almost always meant much more than actually winning the first-in-the-nation caucus.
As Iowans prepare to gather in schools, fire stations and courthouses on Tuesday, the lesson for Mitt Romney is that if he wins this year's contest narrowly, he may not get the kindest headlines. He'll get some credit, of course. Analysts will note that initially this was not considered fertile ground for his message and that the state's Republicans have often given their hearts and their votes to candidates placing more emphasis on social and cultural issues. But if he gets only the level of support suggested by the final pre-caucus poll by the Des Moines Register -- 24 percent -- then it will be a tainted victory. That would be the lowest percentage for any winner since Democrat Jimmy Carter put the caucuses on the political map in 1976.
That year, Carter won with 27.6 percent, actually finishing second to "uncommitted." Other lows of the past included Republican Bob Dole with 26.3 percent in 1996 and Democrat Dick Gephardt with 31.3 percent in 1988.
But even rolling up a big margin does not guarantee that a candidate will be seen as the winner. Just ask former Vice President Walter Mondale. In 1984, he scored an impressive victory over seven opponents with 48.9 percent, a three-to-one trouncing of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, way back in second place with only 16.5 percent. The initial news stories noted the size of the margin. But there was lingering disappointment he had not done even better and almost immediately the positive attention shifted to Hart. With the woeful sixth-place showing of Ohio Sen. John Glenn, Hart was elevated to prime challenger to Mondale, as recounted in Hugh Winebrenner's excellent history of the caucuses, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event.
"The new role brought Hart the media attention he had lacked before Iowa. ... Hart went on to win in New Hampshire and in Maine six days later, and for a time at least, he was elevated to the position of front-runner," wrote Winebrenner. "These successes were made possible by the positive media interpretation of Hart's placing a distant second in the Iowa precinct caucuses."
In the past, the caucus counts have been less than rigorously monitored. To please the media, Republicans added a preference poll to the caucuses in 1976 so there would be numbers to report. But Democrats stubbornly clung to the notion that the caucuses exist to send delegates to county conventions. So while the Republicans were reporting poll numbers, Democrats were reporting something called "delegate equivalents," which the media turned into preference votes.