Given that the NFL playoffs begin this weekend and college basketball is heading into the fun of March playoff brackets, this seems like an appropriate time to take a look at the sport of running for president.
President Obama sits waiting on one side of the bracket for the final matchup in November having received a bye through all the primaries and caucuses. On the other side of the bracket are seven Republicans fighting for a chance to play in the championship game against him. And the actual game day, when winners and losers are picked, starts tomorrow in Iowa at the Republican caucus.
As we head into "January Madness" with a series of matchups in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and finally Florida on the last day of the month, let's see where things stand on the brackets and who is likely to emerge, and who might drop to a losers' bracket hoping to reemerge at a later date.
For most of this election cycle, the No. 1 seed has been Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He has the campaign experience (he ran for president four years ago), his staff is well-organized and smart, and he has performed well in debates and on the campaign trail. Even when the flavors of the month have come and gone, he has remained in either first or second place every step of the way.
Is Romney the inevitable nominee as many are now suggesting? I would say he is the likely, but not inevitable, party choice. He still has two things to prove in this process. First, he has not come under sustained attack by any of the other candidates, as each of his major rivals has. When that day comes, and it will, it will test his and his campaign's acumen and sustainability.
Second, since Day One of this race, Romney has had a lid of support at just under 30 percent everywhere except New Hampshire. So when this playoff field is winnowed to three or four candidates, he will need to show he can break through that ceiling by winning early and demonstrating growth potential. This will be a big test for Romney. Can he win South Carolina or Florida when the field is smaller?
So when we look at the bracketology of this nomination process, let's see how things might come out in Iowa among the six candidates competing there. (Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has gotten a bye from the first round and will face the Iowa "winners" in the next round in New Hampshire.)
Let's pair Romney and Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, who is the No. 6 seed in Iowa. Another good pairing would be the rising Rick Santorum against the falling Newt Gingrich. And the final Iowa pairing might be the stability of Rep. Ron Paul's polling versus the up and down nature of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's candidacy.
So how will things turn out tomorrow night?
It seems that the "winners" coming out of Iowa will be Romney, Santorum, and Paul, and the "losers" likely will be Bachmann, Perry and Gingrich. Each of the winners will go on to New Hampshire to compete for momentum going into the next round. The losers will likely drop into the losers' bracket, and while campaigning some in New Hampshire, they will set up for a fight in South Carolina to see if they can move back into serious play.
Much of how things will be "seeded" in New Hampshire will be determined by the order of the finish in Iowa and who among the candidates exceeds or falls below expectations. The likely result is three winners moving on with strength into New Hampshire, and three losers heading to the warm sun of South Carolina hoping to reemerge out of the Southern regional.
And again, while the No. 1 seed - Romney - is a good bet, he is no sure thing. He needs to see if he can take a beating under the boards, and if he can win in a higher-scoring shootout.
Ya gotta love this game!
Cross-posted from National Journal.