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.
But the casual approach to reporting in 1980 gave George H.W. Bush a significant boost. He was reported by the Iowa state GOP as the winner of that year's caucuses, beating favorite Ronald Reagan by only 2,182 votes, 31.6 percent to 29.5 percent. But don't be fooled by the exactitude of those numbers. The Reagan campaign wasn't. The state party, trying for the first time to give statewide results, was done in by bad computers and a bad system. Irregularities abounded and the party resorted to "extrapolations" -- guesses -- of the correct count. At some point, they just stopped counting.
To this day, veterans of the Reagan campaign are convinced they did not lose the caucuses to Bush. "Even those doing the counting that night admit that we shall never know for sure...," wrote Winebrenner. But Bush had exceeded expectations and it was his picture on the cover of the news magazines. And it was Bush proclaiming that he had "the Big Mo."
In 1976, it was Carter who skillfully used a second-place finish in the caucuses to kill off a major opponent and establish himself as a force in the campaign. He even persuaded most people that he had won, even though his 27.6 percent left him 10 percentage points behind "uncommitted." But it was enough to effectively end the campaign of a heavyweight competitor, Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, who drew only 13.2 percent.
For other candidates, winning the caucuses, even impressively, gave them little benefit because they were expected to do so. That fate befell both the winners in 1988. Gephardt got 31.3 percent in a large field and Dole won 37.4 percent over five challengers. But neither got much credit because they were seen as Midwesterners playing on their home turf. The big story was that televangelist Pat Robertson "exceeded expectations" by finishing second in the GOP race with 24.6 percent. The secondary story was the inability of Vice President George Bush to meet his expectations, finishing third.
Very little attention was paid to the Democratic win by Gephardt. "It would have been nice if someone had told us that Iowa was going to be worth Idaho this time around," Gephardt campaign manager Bill Carrick grumbled to Congressional Quarterly at the time. Unfortunately for Gephardt, Iowa did matter the next time he ran, in 2004. That time, it was Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards exceeding expectations while Gephardt languished in fourth place and was forced to drop out.
Eight years later, that fate almost certainly awaits several of the Republican contenders who bet everything on Iowa. Less certain is whether the candidate who finishes first will be given credit for a genuine win, or whether the victory will be seen as tainted because of those pesky expectations.
Image: Brian Snyder / Reuters