The Feb. 1, 2016 Iowa caucus will be unlike that of any other presidential election year.

If the Republican field of presidential candidates stays so crowded, a win — or even a particularly strong showing — would not be needed in the Hawkeye State to remain a viable candidate, according to a pair of political experts.

They said Gov. Chris Christie could finish outside of the top-three and still claim victory.

The leaders in Iowa are Donald Trump at 22.3 percent, followed by Ben Carson at 16.7 percent and Carly Fiorina at 10.3 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, which averages recent polls. None of the top-three have ever held elective office — and the experts say that could help Christie even if he doesn't finish Iowa near the top.

“The theory is that only one of those is going to survive and the person who’s going to go up against them is somebody who is from the political establishment,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Because he holds elective office, by definition Christie is a candidate from the political establishment.

“Chris Christie can come in fourth in Iowa and it would still be considered a win because he will then be considered a presumptive favorite, a mainstream candidate,” said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University. “He just has to be in the top tier of the mainstream elected official candidates after the outsiders.”

Expectations have changed so dramatically that Christie probably feels he can do well in Iowa even with what, under normal circumstances with a smaller field of candidates, would be considered a poor showing — like getting less than 10 percent of the vote, Murray said.

“In a normal year that would be considered very poor and you’d be out of the race,” he said. “This time around that could be a star performance. I would say even a solid sixth place right behind (Marco) Rubio and (Jeb) Bush — that would be a surprise showing for Christie.”

Mainstream Republicans probably won’t seriously consider at this point the outside candidates as realistic candidates who would actually win the nomination, Dworkin predicted.

“Even if these outside candidates finish one, two and three in Iowa, I just don’t think the national Republican Party is going to embrace them fully and there will still be an intense desire to find the most qualified, best candidate who is an elected official and there are several of them who are running including Chris Christie,” he said.

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.