Yepsen opines that in the Democratic race, a third place finish would be bad. The top three candidates (Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton) are all within a point or two of each other, based off recent polls. Eventually, the primary race with narrow itself down, and no one wants to be left behind. A third place finish for Clinton or Obama, who are perceived as the two front runners in a more general sense, would weaken their chances in the later primaries against each other, and such a result would be particularly disasturous for Edwards because, as Yepsen writes, "He's already seen as a bit of a one-trick pony who has a great campaign in Iowa and little elsewhere."
But Yepsen says that for the Republicans, finishing in third place could be a good thing. Instead of a "Big 3," there is currently only a "Big 2," Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Since both have double digit leads over the second-tier candidates, it's unlikely that either will finish third. That means that for Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani (who leads in general election polls), Ron Paul and John McCain, a third place finish solidifies them as the top candidate of the second-tier, and is a potential spring board to greater things in New Hampshire and further.
Yepsen describes Governor Richardson as such: "Polls also show there is so much distance between the top three and the bottom tier of Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd that their hopes for a third-place showing would seem to be dimming."
This is a perfectly valid statement: in the recent polls, Richardson is at 5% in Iowa, over 20% behind the three front runners. And he has dipped off in recent weeks, so much so that he is no longer the clear top-of-the-second tier candidate: Joe Biden has begun to catch up to him.
To hear Richardson describe it though, 40% of Iowa voters are undecided with many make up their minds in the last week before the caucus. He also has a history of defying huge poll deficits.
So, although we may think we know the governor's rank, the truth is, we have no idea. And while Richardson will of course aim for victory, it is not likely--even second place would take a small miracle. A third place finish, though, is not entirely out of the question. It's a (very) long shot--even I can admit that. But it's not as hopeless as Yepsen and the rest of his ilk make it out to be. And let's just say it does happen. What then?
Obviously, it can not be a negative for the governor, who has stated several times that third place (or higher) finishes in the early caucuses are necessary for a successful campaign over the long term. If Richardson could pull a third place finish, then Yepsen's scenario for the Democrats gets rewritten, and it would almost resemble that of the Republicans.
But I think such a finish for Richardson would have a greater effect than that. Whereas one of the second tier Republicans (Thompson, Giuliani, etc.) is expected to finish third, Richardson is not. The momentum gained by the Republican third-place finisher would likely come at the expense of other second tier candidates (read: not that much) and Romney and Huckabee, who are the front runners in New Hampshire and Michigan as well, would continue to reign supreme over the Republican primary.
But if Richardson finished third, he could potentially pull support from one of the three current Democratic front runners, since one would have to finish fourth in order for Richardson to do so--such a result would throw their campaign in shambles, and all but end it. The voters he could siphon from them would be of much greater quantity than the Republican third-place finisher could pull. Even Edwards, whose numbers drop off significantly after Iowa, would give Richardson a large contingency of voters. A Clinton or Obama debacle in Iowa would be the best possible result of the governor.
Of course, no matter who falls to let Richardson in, it is all but guaranteed that some of their supporters will go to the two remaining front runners. But by establishing himself as a legitimate alternative in Iowa, Bill Richardson has an excellent chance to win over more voters and gain the momentum he needs going into New Hampshire and beyond.