By Craig Robinson
Public Policy Polling (PPP), a self-described Democratic polling company based in North Carolina, released the results of its Iowa presidential poll yesterday. The automated telephone survey of 481 “usual” Republican primary voters showed Mitt Romney leading the field of candidates in Iowa with 21 percent of the vote. Sarah Palin and Herman Cain came in tied for second place, both garnering 15 percent.
While the poll certainly satisfies a political junkies thirst to see some actual polling numbers out of the First-in-the-Nation caucus state, the fluidity of the Republican presidential field combined with the sluggish start of caucus campaigning in Iowa, has limited what we can learn from the poll.
The poll is also questionable because the pollster decided to exclude former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum actually has staff on the ground in the state and has also held numerous stand-alone campaign events. While Santorum was excluded, Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman was included. Huntsman, who has yet to formally announce he is running for president, has not yet stepped foot into Iowa.
Below are some of my thoughts on what the results of the poll mean for each candidate.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has gone out of his way to down play Iowa after finishing second to Mike Huckabee in the 2008 caucuses. For months, Romney’s team has been making the case that the Iowa Caucuses are too dominated by evangelicals for a mainstream candidate like Romney to do well here. Nevertheless, Romney finds himself leading in an Iowa caucus poll. Romney’s strategy would have worked flawlessly had Mike Huckabee entered the race, but with Huckabee’s absence, Romney has no reason to write off Iowa anymore.
If Romney sticks to his plan to minimize Iowa, it is obviously that he is trying to adhere to a campaign plan that his team of advisors concocted months ago. Romney rightfully stresses his business experience on the campaign trail. Campaigns are not all that different from a business, they need to adapt to an ever-changing market. Of all the Republican candidates in the race, Romney’s pathway to the nomination is the most clear. If he finishes first or second in Iowa and wins New Hampshire, he will likely be the Republican nominee. Avoiding Iowa does nothing but to prolong the race, which is always dangerous to a national frontrunner.
It didn’t take long for the “Herman Cain Train” to gain steam. Cain has gone from near obscurity to becoming the conservative darling of the field. While the media points to Cain’s South Carolina debate performance as his break through moment, he also deserves credit for traveling all across Iowa to meet voters in the First-in-the-Nation state. Cain has already logged many miles in Iowa and the polling results indicate that his hard work has began to pay off.
As a real threat to win the Iowa caucuses, Cain’s past will now be scrutinized. With the increased media attention, the words he uses and what he says on the campaign trail will also be dissected. Even though he’s never held public office, his past statements on policy issues are sure to become campaign fodder. Managing expectations is one of the most difficult tasks in all of politics, while Mike Huckabee flew under the radar for most of the year leading up to the 2008 caucuses, Cain finds himself in the spot light early in the process.
Cain’s impressive poll numbers are both a blessing and a curse. However, one would rather have peaked too early than to have never have peaked at all.
Once again the national media is obsessed with Sarah Palin. As a result, Palin’s poll numbers are on the rise, as a possible presidential run seems like a real possibility. Palin’s inclusion in the poll actually helped shed a little light on the entire set of result. The presidential field was polled in two different ways, one with Palin, one without.
It was surprising to see that when she was excluded from the poll that her support was pretty evenly dispersed across the entire field. When Palin was excluded from the Republican field, Romney gained five percent, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann each gained three percent, and Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman each added one percent. . It also shows that whoever is considered the frontrunner in the race will likely benefit the most if she chooses not to run.
For as much as Gingrich’s young presidential campaign has had to endure, Newt has been able to maintain his standing in the early Iowa polls. The bad news for Gingrich is that the poll showed that more Republicans had an unfavorable opinion of him than not. There is no doubt that Gingrich’s campaign has taken on water, but he needs some solid uneventful weeks to right his ship.
Bachmann has everything a candidate needs to be successful in Iowa. She is a solid social and fiscal conservative. She is charismatic and articulate. And she also appeals to members of the Tea Party movement.
Bachmann began flirting with a presidential run four months ago. Even though she has stated she will make an announcement later this month. She seems no more closer to becoming an actual candidate today than she was when she first became traveling to the state.
Bachmann is behaving like she’s a frontrunner when this poll, and other like it, show that she has plenty of work to do in Iowa if she wants to be a presidential contender. Bachmann has the second highest favorability rating next to Palin in the poll, meaning she has plenty of potential to do well here. The only problem is that it’s just potential. To capitalize on her strengths she has to be willing to put in the time and effort, which we have yet to see from her in Iowa.
A national reporter asked me on the day that Pawlenty announced candidacy in Des Moines if the campaign machine that he had assembled would scare other candidates out of Iowa. I quickly answered, “no.” Pawlenty has everything in place to be successful in Iowa, but it is yet to be seen whether or not his message resonates with Iowa caucus goers.
Pawlenty has placed all of his chips on Iowa, which means he has to move his poll numbers and do it fast. No candidate in Iowa has greater expectations in than Pawlenty does right now. With a campaign staff a similar size as what Romney assembled in Iowa four years ago, the media and political operatives will expect a similar result. That is easier said than done.
In the 2008 caucuses, Ron Paul garnered 10 percent of the vote. The PPP poll shows that Paul has basically been able to maintain that level of support. Some may believe that Paul has a very low ceiling in Iowa, thus making it difficult to grow his support in Iowa. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. If any candidate will outperform what the polls say, it will be Ron Paul. His supporters are as diverse as they are passionate.
It’s also worth nothing that Paul’s Iowa campaign is already running smoothly by all accounts. The have a functioning office and capable field staff, which is all being overseen by the watchful eye of Drew Ivers, a skilled caucus veteran. Once again Paul is flying under the radar, an enviable place to be in a caucus campaign.
It makes no sense to try and decipher what Jon Huntsman’s lack of support means in Iowa since he has yet to step foot here. Instead, I’ll focus on the candidate who should have been included – Rick Santorum.
Santorum has gone about campaigning in Iowa in a very workman like manner. He’s got skilled advisors, capable staff, and has found success in holding his own campaign events in different parts of the state. With Huckabee out of the race, Santorum has the best social conservative credentials of the entire field. That is something that should help him gain support around the state.
Not including Santorum in the ballot test was a mistake, especially since they found room for a candidate like Huntsman. While not being included in the poll means that Santorum is going to miss out on some media coverage, but I actually think it benefits him. As with Ron Paul, being under the radar as a candidate has its advantages. Without having to deal with the expectations game, Santorum can continue to keep his head down and focus on the task at hand, meeting Iowans.
Still, it would be interesting to know why he was excluded from the poll.
All photos except Romney by Dave Davidson
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