1. Forget the dueling national polls. To have a realistic chance at winning the Republican nomination, Herman Cain needs to win Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Let’s start with Iowa. If Cain wins, he’s got a shot. If he loses but finishes in the top three, he’ll likely stick around as the guy who wins some Southern primaries but doesn’t get the nod (think Mike Huckabee). If he finishes outside the top three, his campaign is effectively finished. Then repeat these exact conditions in South Carolina and Florida.
2. That’s probably the path to the nomination for most other non-Romneys too, though unless expectations change significantly someone like Newt Gingrich could probably survive losing Iowa as long as he finished in the top three. But back-to-back Mitt Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would be very hard to overcome.
3. There is a real reluctance to nominate Romney — I’m going to ignore my admonition about national polls long enough to point out that CBS has him statistically tied with undecided — which is why he isn’t yet inevitable. But a race in which Cain, Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul all retain pockets of support favors him. So does his greater ability to campaign effectively in multiple states at the same time.
4. The people saying Tim Pawlenty should have stayed in the race are forgetting one practical consideration: his campaign was running out of money. Pawlenty was expected to be a top-tier candidate. He staffed his campaign like a top-tier candidate and his donors expected top-tier results. They were already having trouble paying their bills before Ames and weren’t going to be able to raise enough money after he finished third there. Shedding that organization and subsisting on whatever invitations he could have gotten to televised debates probably wouldn’t have kept him afloat long enough to spring Republicans from their Cain or Romney trap.
5. Jon Huntsman, who had the ability to self-finance, is the candidate who could have kept himself afloat long enough to take advantage of the Romney/Cain dilemma. But he blew it by deemphasizing his conservative record and running as a rich man’s John McCain, circa 2000.
6. Paul could have his non-Romney moment with back-to-back top three finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. The key will be avoiding disaster in South Carolina and Florida before another top three performance in Nevada. If Paul finishes outside the top three in both Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign will only marginally outperform his 2008 showing.