History suggests that it doesn’t matter who actually wins tonight in Iowa—it matters who exceeds expectations, or fails to meet them. The media is always flabbergasted by strange Iowa finishes, but they shouldn’t be, writes Nate Silver of the New York Times, because thanks to unreliable polls they happen all the time, and seem especially likely this year. “A wide range of outcomes remain possible in Iowa even at this late hour,” he warns, and as you can see, his final predictions contain wide margins of error:
- Mitt Romney: Most likely: 22%; Ceiling: 32%; Floor: 12%. A really low finish (think 15%) could trigger a real free-for-all.
- Ron Paul: Most likely: 21%; Ceiling: 31%; Floor: 11%. A really high finish might give him a shot in New Hampshire.
- Rick Santorum: Most likely: 19%; Ceiling: 29%; Floor: 10%. Expectations were so low in previous months that even a decent third-place finish will generate positive headlines.
- Newt Gingrich: Most likely: 15%; Ceiling: 24%; Floor: 7%. If he manages to snag third, he could have some upside.
- Rick Perry: Most likely: 10%; Ceiling: 18%; Floor: 4%. He has no excuse for failure given his Iowa ground game, and must at minimum beat Gingrich.
- Michele Bachmann: Most likely: 8%; Ceiling: 15%; Floor: 2%. She needs to finish at the top of her range to stay viable.
- Jon Huntsman: Most likely: 4%; Ceiling: 8%; Floor: 0%. Who cares? They pick corn in Iowa.