How Much Could Change in the Race Next Year?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their bi-weekly faceoff about Election 2012

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Penn: If there is one thing that has been true about every pundit’s prediction so far about 2011, it’s that it’s been wrong. Just as the stock market has gyrated erratically, so also the political marketplace has faced much the same kind of uncertainty and instability.

Let’s look at the last few months:

Obama is looking better, just after he was looking dire.

The economy is coming up, just after it was declared dead.

And Newt Gingrich is fading, just after he was pronounced the unexpected frontrunner.

So this suggests that either a) conventional wisdom will win out and Mitt Romney will be the nominee against a vulnerable President Obama and the rest of this is just noise or b) the Republican primary will descend into utter chaos with Obama looking stronger going into the general election.

At this point, I think future b — chaos — is more likely to happen.

Ron Paul could now win Iowa being the ultimate come-from-behind candidate. And if that happens, Romney would be so weak that maybe Jon Huntsman would finish higher than expected in New Hampshire and get back in the race. Gingrich could win South Carolina and then the primary season could go on for several months as a multi-candidate race with no clear winner.

That would give a clear path to Obama to seize the day with a strong State of the Union and re-launch of his campaign and his presidency with the backdrop of a strengthening economy.

Newt could then ultimately win the nomination after a long drawn-out battle, only to have a third party candidate enter the race and either unexpectedly win with a plurality that could be overturned by the House of Representatives. Or the third party candidate could just serve as a spoiler that tips the election to Obama, who would only need about 40% to win.

Far-fetched?  So far based on 2011, only the unexpected can be what’s expected for 2012.

(MORE: Can Republicans Learn to Love Mitt Romney?)

Hughes:  The only reasonable prediction after a year that has seen five different candidates lead in the race for the Republican nomination is this: sometime next year, my party will have a Republican nominee. (Of course, we used to say, Win or lose, come election day, it’s over. Then came 2000 and the Florida recount.) But once the campaign moves from a season of straw polls and speculation into a time when Americans walk into voting booths and make their choices, things tend to change fast. And sometimes very dramatically.

How dramatically? Consider that in mid-December, 2007, this same time in the presidential election cycle four years ago, everyone thought that Hillary Clinton would be the Democrats’ nominee. Rudy Giuliani led the polls in the Republican contest, followed by Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, while John McCain was in fourth place with a dismal 12 percent support in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls.

On Jan. 3, voters in Iowa will begin answering these questions: Is Newt Gingrich’s lead as transitory as it was for several other candidates in 2011? Will Romney’s organization deliver a win in New Hampshire and a stronger than expected showing in Iowa? Can another candidate emerge from down in the pack with a surprising finish in one of the early states?

Only the voters will decide, and I have some holiday homework for my fellow Republicans. Think hard about which of our candidates can actually win in the general election, and which would be an effective and respected President. Which candidate can have appeal beyond our Party and attract the Reagan Democrats and other swing voters who will be critical to victory? President Obama is vulnerable, and the only way for our country to change course, restore confidence, return to strong growth and lead the world to greater peace and freedom is to defeat him in November. The eventual outcome of the election may well hinge on the choices made by Republican primary voters in the spring of 2012.