Nowhere has the fracturing of the field been more evident—and more potentially consequential—than in Iowa. In 2008, it was the coalescence of the Evangelical vote around Mike Huckabee that allowed him to whip Romney in the caucuses and in so doing effectively cripple his campaign. This year, however, the Christian right has so far split its support among Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, while at the same time no Establishment challenger to Romney exists. In such a fragmented field, it is possible, and even likely, that winning on caucus night will entail capturing less than 30 percent of the vote. (In 2008, Huckabee won with 34.) And that in turn explains why either Paul or Romney, barring a sudden efflorescence by one of the second-tier candidates after Christmas, has the highest odds of taking the prize—for while both have ceilings on their support, both also have relatively high floors, along with the organizational strength to turn out their supporters.
Either scenario is, of course, great news for Romney. A victory in Iowa by Paul would set up as Romney’s chief competitor going forward a candidate whose views are too far out of line with too much of the Republican Party for him ever to claim the GOP nomination. And a victory by Romney would send him hurtling at breakneck speed into New Hampshire and almost certain triumph there—a result that would more or less hand him the nomination before Republicans in 48 other states have even voted.
If things do indeed unfold this way, Romney will stand as unquestionably the luckiest nominee in modern Republican history—and also the most curious. For most of the year, he floated above the fray, not running for president so much as hovering over the sad and comic spectacle of his rivals’ imploding one by one. It was enough for him to appear presidential. Enough for him to debate well. Enough for him to avoid disaster. Just as in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, in a contest with a bunch of clowns the guy without the funny nose and floppy shoes wins the day. But before Romney and his people get too giddy, they should remember one thing: Barack Obama, for all his flaws and weaknesses, won’t be wearing any greasepaint, either.