WaPo/ABC Iowa: Newt 33, Romney and Paul 18, Perry 11.
NYT/CBS Iowa: Newt 31, Romney 17, Paul 16, Perry 11.

Yes, I’m focusing on the last name on that list. Perry’s within ten points of second place in Iowa? And still has plenty of money to spend?

I’m not predicting anything; in fact, I should note that the two polls above, both released yesterday, were much better for him than the two over the weekend, which had him below 10% and behind at least one other longshot. So he could be moving up, or it could just be random variation and he’s really in a pack with Bachmann and Santorum, and that’s not where anyone wants to be. But still…if those numbers released yesterday are accurate, Perry’s certainly within hailing distance of getting one of the proverbial three tickets out of Iowa.

And if he does that? Hard to tell. One real possibility is that after a Newt/Paul/Perry trifecta in Iowa, Romney could actually just collapse, finishing behind at least two of Newt, Perry, Paul, and Huntsman in New Hampshire, and basically hitting the end of the line right there. Another is that Newt’s bubble pops (we’ve yet to see how his support lasts once he’s targeted, and supposedly Paul is about to run ads against him in Iowa). There’s no guarantee that Newt even finishes in the top three in Iowa. Even if he does win, the expectation game could hurt Newt coming out of Iowa, especially if GOP elites are looking to take him down (which of course I believe they are); they could treat a win by him in the caucuses as a foregone conclusion, and support a pro-Romney or pro-Perry spin coming out of that state. That matters. Everyone remembers that Bill Clinton won the spin game in New Hampshire in 1992 by famously declaring himself the “Comeback Kid” after finishing second, but that sort of thing is a lot easier to sustain for a candidate who has plenty of surrogates repeating the message. And it’s even easier if many of those in-effect surrogates are technically neutral party elites who just happen to buy your message and not the message of your opponent, not just on air but in how they influence TV producers and correspondents. If there are lots of those people who are ready and willing to jump on you…well, you can get the Howard Dean Scream.

(Granted, Dean was already sunk before the Scream, but it’s still an excellent example of how post-primary spin can be spun).

Again, not predicting anything, other than that I’m fairly sure that the contest in Iowa is still very interesting. And that among the still-viable possibilities coming out of Iowa in addition to the Gingrich/Romney contest everyone is anticipating are a Gingrich/Perry, a Romney/Perry, or a Romney/Perry/Gingrich race, in each case with Ron Paul as a plus-one. It’s even possible that one of the others will spike up and wind up the “other” candidate to Romney, or even to Perry — we could have, for example, a Perry/Huntsman race after New Hampshire. Or I suppose a Romney/Santorum battle, although I really don’t see that one coming. And note that all of those potential races would be in the context of what we do already know, which means that we would know a lot about the likely outcomes.

Long way to go. Even if it is just a month.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.