The Republican presidential race actually begins Tuesday night. It is worth remembering that this is the first time we will hear from the voters—that everything up to this point, while presented as The Campaign, was actually a long, voter-less preseason consisting primarily of candidates, politicos, donors and reporters talking amongst themselves.

No one knows what these first voters will do. We do know that whatever they convey, however, it will depart significantly from The Campaign Narrative so far. The “front-runner” will definitely not be Herman Cain, for example, since he isn’t even running now that the real race is beginning. Last year’s conventional wisdom treated Cain like a huge contender—the press covered him more than any other candidate through all of November—while discounting “minor candidates” like Rick Santorum. Since the narrative and the hype have been such poor guides to this race, here are a couple points to help cut through the clutter when assessing the Iowa results.

The Expectations Game

Mitt Romney is expected to finish strong in Iowa: first or a close second. His advisers relentlessly played down expectations for the caucus, stressing that Romney did not campaign much on the ground. So if Romney wins, get ready to hear politicos and pundits proclaiming that he “beat expectations” and the race is basically over, given the momentum heading into New Hampshire.

Is that right? Well, Romney’s team has a point: It is hard to beat frontrunners that go on an early roll, and he did skip retail politicking in Iowa. Romney has done only thirty-three events in the state, while Ron Paul clocked over 100, and Santorum just did his 306th appearance.

It is absurd, however, to suggest that Romney is not campaigning hard to win Iowa. A pro-Romney PAC has spent about $4 million on ads there. More significantly, Romney’s own campaign leads the entire Republican field in direct contacts with likely caucus-goers: 31 percent say they have heard from the Romney campaign by phone or in-person, a notch above the 29 percent who have heard from Ron Paul’s famous machine, and double the 15 percent for Santorum’s campaign. With only five paid staff in the state, the Romney campaign probably achieved this voter saturation by contracting with out-of-state phone banks. (The campaign did not respond to questions on the topic.) Much of the political press has missed this data-point, buried in a recent ABC poll, but Romney appears to be running a real field operation. (You don’t usually beat Ron Paul’s army without one.) Romney’s finish in Iowa will reflect that field outreach, as well as Super PAC spending and the dividends from the ten million he spent wooing Iowans last cycle. If political framing was fair (or accurate), Romney would have the highest expectations of any candidate on Tuesday.

Rick the Anti-Mitt?

In many conservative minds, Rick Santorum has become what Rick Perry once was: a true conservative who can actually take the nomination from Mitt Romney.

Santorum’s late surge in Iowa surely reflects both local campaigning and a national disenchantment with the more prominent alternatives to Romney. Bachmann, Perry and now Gingrich each proved to burn brightly, but briefly. Santorum’s cash-strapped operation cannot replicate his Iowa strategy in future states, but that is the whole point of Iowa: a strong finish can jump-start an otherwise dying campaign. He doesn’t need to win, he just needs a strong enough finish to seize the spotlight as the alternative to Romney. Santorum’s speech on Tuesday night will be his introduction to many voters around the country, and given Ron Paul’s limited national appeal, Santorum can sell a third-place finish as the sign that conservatives should rally around him. He has begun making that argument, in essence, by quarantining Paul’s success as a libertarian sideshow in an irrelevant race.

“There’s really three primaries,” Santorum said on Sunday’s Meet The Press. “You have the conservative primary”—which Santorum defines as a race between him, Perry and Bachmann—“you have the libertarian primary, and then you have Gingrich [and] Romney sort of fighting for the establishment vote,” Santorum explained. “And our feeling was from the very beginning if we can pace ahead of Perry and/or Bachmann that we’d be in good shape and [we’re] moving in that direction, certainly, right now.”

The uncompleted thought here is that the libertarian primary ends early, as Paul fever cools. If Santorum can win the conservative primary, consolidating the intensity of the tea partiers and the Romney opponents, he could have the money and momentum for a long primary fight. But put aside the self-serving analysis—is there evidence of three such electorates?

Clearly, Romney appeals to the establishment and the GOP center. (Although most Washington Republicans would put Gingrich in the grassroots conservative category.) The telling error in the Santorum Theory, however, is assuming that Paul’s appeal is strictly limited to libertarian voters.

In fact, Paul owes part of his Iowa traction to support from evangelicals. Among Iowa Republicans, when you ask the self-declared “born again” Christians which candidates they agree with on the issues most important to them, Santorum ranks first (as expected). But Paul comes in second, beating Perry and Bachmann for the ideological kinship of evangelicals. They must see something in him beyond reforming the Fed. And while Romney leads those same evangelicals on the question of who is most electable, Paul also does better on that score than Santorum. To put it in Santorum’s taxonomy, Paul is winning the libertarian primary and getting a decent look in the conservative primary.

After Iowa

Once the Iowa results are in, there will be four key inflection points. First, the top candidates will make their cases in nationally televised speeches on caucus night—a chance for Santorum to go negative, or Romney to debut a confident, general election message. Then, flagging candidates may drop out as early as Wednesday, resorting the field. (Last cycle, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were out by Wednesday after dismal showings in Iowa.) Finally, the remaining candidates will meet for back-to-back debates on January 7 and 8 in New Hampshire. Who knows, Santorum may even get some air time.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore