The latest polls show Mitt Romney powering towards his second landslide in a row in Saturday's Nevada Republican caucuses. Forty-five percent of Republicans intending to participate say they'll back the GOP presidential frontrunner, who's fresh off a resounding win in Florida's primary. His nearest rival, Newt Gingrich, lags 20 percentage points behind, and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul trail with 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Though some think the results are a foregone conclusion, at least five questions remain:
1. How far off will the polls be?
If the polls are right, this is no contest, says Jamie Dupree in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But in 2008, when Romney took Nevada with 51 percent of the vote, none of the polls came within 22 points of Romney's margin of victory. Why? In caucuses, the results reflect both a candidate's popularity and the ability of his or her statewide organization to get supporters to show up. "Caucuses are particularly hard to poll," says Public Policy Polling CEO Dean Debnam, and Nevada's is especially challenging. The results could easily defy expectations.
2. Will Mormons reverse Romney's turnout problem?
"Voter turnout numbers are pointing to a potential enthusiasm deficit for... Romney," says the Associated Press. The former Massachusetts governor won Florida with 46 percent of the vote, but turnout was sharply down from 2008 — except in counties where Gingrich did well. "That could change in Nevada," though, where Mormons, who make up only 7 percent of the population, accounted for 25 percent of caucus goers in 2008, says Ed Kilgore at Washington Monthly. Ninety-five percent of them supported Romney, a devout Mormon. Will energized Mormons bridge the enthusiasm gap and boost turnout?
3. Will Tea Partiers save Gingrich?
The former House speaker has never been a consensus favorite with small-government, anti-tax Tea Partiers. But Gingrich remains Romney's "closest threat" in Nevada thanks largely to Republicans who back the grassroots movement, says Laura Myers at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Tea Partiers made their mark in the state in the 2010 midterms, fueling Sharron Angle's unsuccessful but closely watched challenge against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The movement has since fallen into disarray, and some say it's too "dysfunctional" to be a factor. But Tea Partiers might make a difference if they coalesce behind one candidate, says Anjeanette Damon in the Las Vegas Sun. They're united about one thing: "Mitt Romney is not their guy."
4. Can Rick Santorum gain traction?
Rick Santorum is telling voters that "Newt Gingrich had his shot" in Florida and failed because he makes voters nervous, says Catherine Poe in The Washington Times. With me, Santorum has said, "You will not have to worry everyday when you open up the paper: 'Oh, what did he say today? What planet are we going to colonize next?'" That might pay off in Colorado, where a lot of voters favor Santorum's Christian conservative causes. But recession-walloped Nevada is wounded by a 12.6 unemployment rate and frequently leads the country in foreclosures. Its voters are focused on the economy, not social issues, says Naureen Khan at The Atlantic, and "that bodes ill" for Santorum.
5. Will Ron Paul's committed followers deliver?
Ron Paul's supporters "border on the feverish in their mania for the man and his policies," says Poe. That makes caucuses — which are poorly attended except by "hardcore activists" — ideal opportunities for the libertarian Texas congressman to outperform his poll numbers. Paul has been ignoring big primary states, such as South Carolina and Florida, to focus on caucus states like Nevada, where he finished second in 2008, says Sarah Schweitzer in The Boston Globe. We'll see Saturday how well the strategy is paying off.