GWEN IFILL: Now joining us to discuss what to watch tonight are Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report, who is also a contributing columnist at Roll Call, and NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni, who starts with us this week.
Not a moment too soon, Christina.
GWEN IFILL: What are you watching for tonight?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, I'm really looking to see if the Iowa Republicans are as split among their sort of core as we thought that they might be.
You have got a situation where, as Judy talked about, and obviously, as Ann just talked about, where they're looking for electability. But then there's the anti-war faction that tends to sign with Congressman Ron Paul. You have also got the evangelical vote, which has been splitting, but seemed to be going with former Senator Rick Santorum at this last sort of push at the end.
And then there are sort of the voters that are going based on the economy. They think that maybe Romney would be the best steward of the economy, better than Barack Obama. So, that's where I'm looking. Are they really split, or is Romney really going to be able to make that case to all of these groups?
GWEN IFILL: How about you, Stu?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Same kind of things.
One, I'm looking to see whether the second-tier conservatives are simply collapsing.
GWEN IFILL: What does that mean, second-tier conservatives?
STUART ROTHENBERG: That would be -- not to offend anybody, but that would include...
GWEN IFILL: Why would tonight be any different?
STUART ROTHENBERG: That would include Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. Is support leaving them and going to presumably Rick Santorum?
If that happens, if it happens in big enough numbers, Santorum could not merely surge, but he could surge to the front. That would be a significant development, at least for him, if not long term.
The other thing I'm looking at is this question on electability that Christina mentioned. I looked at the exit polls four years ago. And they asked the question: What's the most important candidate quality to you?
And electability was cited by 7 percent, only 7 percent of Republicans. And you know who won that? Those Republicans? Fifty-one percent of them went for Mitt Romney.
Now, flash-forward four years later. What percent of Republicans in Iowa who go to these caucuses say that electability is the number-one thing? A lot of us think it is going to be bigger than 7 percent. How big is it, and does Mitt Romney continue to get those people?
GWEN IFILL: Does he benefit in those cases? That's interesting.
Well, let's look at the map, a map of Iowa in our heads here, and say, geographically, which areas -- as we begin to watch some of these results come in tonight, which areas are you watching to see which way they go?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.
Well, I think sort of the central part of the state is really crucial for Mitt Romney especially, because Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, was basically able to take all of that in 2008 and win the caucuses. And Romney won some areas in the northeast and then some areas in the west, sort of the central west.
And Ron Paul won just one county in 2008. So I'm looking at some of those towns sort of to see in that central Iowa area -- if Romney is able to capture, say, Des Moines, that's going to be a pretty good indicator of where this night may go.
GWEN IFILL: How about you, Stu?
STUART ROTHENBERG: And Romney's strength, as Christina said, one of his greatest areas of strength was the Catholic eastern third of the state. Rick Santorum, a Catholic, conservative, pro-lifer, the question is, does he eat into Romney's margin, Romney's vote in that area? I think that's going to be telling.
And then there's the general question, whether or not Mitt Romney generally broadens his support because of the electability argument and because -- let's face it, Gwen -- he has been pounding away for months on what a conservative he is. It's not as if Mitt Romney's been running as a moderate, saying, look at me, I'm a moderate. He's been saying, I'm a conservative.
So, does he increase his margins even in the central part of the state among conservatives?
GWEN IFILL: Well, you talk - let's talk culturally, because you mentioned the Catholics and you mentioned the fact that the evangelicals -- we have been talking about them until we're blue in the face, in part because of the way it happened four years ago with Mike Huckabee.
Is that a significant chunk this year, or are they so hopelessly split, that they're not going to have that kind of ability to deliver?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: I mean they've been really campaigned to this year, from Mike Huckabee going to the state and showing his movies, from, you know, the Tea Party coming through and trying to galvanize that group as well.
GWEN IFILL: I heard today Ralph Reed was there campaigning -- or at least appearing with Rick Santorum.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah. And I think that they're definitely getting a lot of attention this year. They're being told how important they are. So that's -- they tend to show up in big numbers.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, I think they're going to show up. And, again, as -- this question is, are they going to splinter, as they have been for months, or have they suddenly at the last moment, maybe because of divine intervention, concluded that they have to support a single candidate, and that's presumably Rick Santorum?
That is a very important question. And I don't think we can answer that now.
GWEN IFILL: We will answer it later.
Now, here's one of the other questions which I'm curious about, because people forget that, four years ago, a lot of Republicans crossed and caucused for Barack Obama. And that helped him come from behind and beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Where are those voters now? Has anybody looked at talking to them?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, I talked to the Obama campaign earlier this evening. And they are not publicly talking about sort of what their strategy is. They don't want to communicate that to the Republicans, they say.
But they say that their real strength is sort of turning out more people. And by turning out more people, they mean turning out more hard-core Democrats. So, my...
GWEN IFILL: You mean for the caucuses tonight, even though there's not a competition?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Exactly, and just getting people engaged. They're doing a lot of this "I've delivered on my four promises that I made when I won that" speech. That's what you're going to hear Obama talk about quite a bit.
But they're not talking about those Republicans. So, it would appear that perhaps they are not counting on those people returning to him come the fall 2008. I think they're caucusing for others.
GWEN IFILL: It seems like President Obama, if nothing else, is a great motivating factor for Republicans. They want to get him out of there.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yeah, I don't think you're going to see a lot of Democrats coming out and re-registering Republican just to vote in the Republican caucuses.
But I would keep an eye on independents. Four years ago, 13 percent of people participating in the Republican caucuses were independents. Ron Paul got 29 percent. John McCain got 23, and Mitt Romney got 19. Does the independent number go up or down? Does Ron Paul benefit? A lot of interesting questions.
GWEN IFILL: Now, here's a question that's asked at this time every four years in every other State of the Union, which is, why Iowa? Why is it so important? So few delegates, it seems so unrepresentative. Why?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, and this is a really great question, I think, for this year, because you've seen the candidates actually spent less time in Iowa than ever before.
Iowans like to say they like to meet every single candidate multiple times. They're really kicking the tires, as they like to say. But if they're going to reward the candidates who didn't spend a lot of time in Iowa, didn't necessarily spend all that much money in Iowa until the end, that's really going to call into question...
GWEN IFILL: That would be Mitt Romney, you're saying.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, not just Romney, a lot of the candidates. Gingrich didn't really start campaigning there until the final last month-and-a-half.
So, I think that it definitely is a big question there. And one other thing I will point out is that Romney won about 25 percent of the vote to come in second in the caucuses in 2008. And I think that's going to be an interesting look of what percentage he might get tonight. Is he breaking that floor? Can he win with that low percentage?
GWEN IFILL: Is Iowa mostly good for its launching pad potential?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Absolutely.
You're right. The numbers don't justify it, 25 delegates out of about 2,300 at the Republican Convention. And, Gwen, not a single delegate will be selected tonight. That will be further down the road.
Why then do we care? I think, first, finally, real people are actually going to participate in the process, rather than pollsters and pundits. And so that's important. Real people are involved.
And, second of all, it's a question of momentum. The person -- the people who do well here will be able to raise money. They will get more airtime, more coverage. They will be able to gin up their campaigns. And that will be good for them down the road.
GWEN IFILL: Timing, timing, timing.
Stu Rothenberg, Christina Bellantoni, we'll be talking to you all night. Thank you.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.