Tonight will host a series of rituals. Iowa Republicans go to their Caucuses, a time-honored tradition that needs to be re-explained to the rest of the country every four years. After this evening, they will be released from their media spotlight until about 3 1/2 years from now.
Around America, non-Iowans will take part in a ritual as well: consuming the news out of the Caucuses and trying to make sense of it. Groups of New Yorkers will be watching at the Pacific Standard in Brooklyn, Sutton Place Bar on the East Side, and at The Half Pint in the Village. Rehearsals are over; this is opening night; and we're all excited to watch the show.
The final ritual is the one the GOP candidates themselves will take part in: the ritual spin. Candidates who come in 2nd and 3rd will explain why this beats expectations. Candidates who finish even lower will discuss how little they invested in Iowa and how little it means to the long primary season. And one candidate will get to declare that the people of Iowa have spoken by making him or her number one.
Romney, the man who is the most likely to win in New Hampshire and is an odds-on favorite for the nominee, has the least to lose tonight. For much of the lead-up to Iowa, his campaign maintained he wasn't trying to win there, perhaps having learned their lesson from his second place showing to Mike Huckabee four years ago. Even with reports that Romney was, in fact, investing far more in Iowa than they pretended, and with news of extravagant pro-Romney PAC money battering rivals over the past month, his communications team has been actively downplaying expectations in a state where religious conservatives have been wary of his moderate past and Mormon faith.
If he wins, he'll have to summon all his acting skills to seem humbled and surprised—not common Romney characteristics.
If he loses, his team can note that Iowa didn't make Huckabee the nominee four years ago; and in a week, they'll have something to brag about.
For Santorum and Paul, two candidates who had been marginalized through much of the debates, the chance to come in top tier is their moment in the sun. If either man ends up in the top three, they'll call it victory. However, in both cases, beyond a core of passionate supporters, it's hard to see how they get the wider swath of support and the financial backing to turn their surge into sustained momentum. If Santorum came in ahead of Romney, he could well position himself as the true conservative alternative to the front-runner so despised by the GOP base—but he'd have to see Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich get out of the way.
Therein lies the trouble. Perry has enough money to last until South Carolina. Even an embarrassing drubbing tonight might not knock him out. And Gingrich—as long as he keeps selling books, why not stay in the race? It's not like he's working very hard at it anyway.
Which leaves Bachmann. If she fails to make the top three in the state that gave her an early boost, she might be the one candidate to drop out. But even a "close fourth" would give her enough reason to stick around a little longer. All the candidates hope that while Romney will win New Hampshire, he'll falter in South Carolina—and each of them wants to be the alternative who benefits in that state.
All of which is to say: Iowa may not change anything. We may still have a front-runner in Romney, and continue to see a handful of rivals competing to be viewed as the best option that isn't Romney. And all of them may hang out until South Carolina, provided they have the money, to see how the yo-yo (as Donald Trump put it) of the primary spins next.
All except Jon Huntsman. He's waiting for New Hampshire, and we'll make predictions on him next week.
So if Iowa doesn't change everything, why do we care? Because opening day rarely decides the baseball season. Opening night isn't the entire run of a Broadway show. But these first public moments do help shape the next steps. They do give us enthusiasts something to chew over.
And it's ritual. Isn't that enough?
Last note, and I don't feel strong enough to place a bet, but how can I not offer a prediction: Romney-Santorum-Paul to win-place-show. I'll check back in tomorrow to admit how wrong I was.