Let me start with a few words of introduction. Since March I have been a contributor to the Power Rankings that were posted about every two weeks at the Iowa Independent. Major changes at that website caused the discontinuation of the Power Rankings, but with only six weeks left I wanted to continue my biweekly analysis of the Republican caucus race. Craig Robinson graciously agreed to post them here at The Iowa Republican.
The structure of my analysis is a bit different from the previously posted Power Rankings. I usually start out with an extended recap of the events of particular interest that occurred since the last ranking. I then follow with a ranking of what I think would be the top five finishers if the caucuses were held at the time of writing. My goal here is to take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and to evaluate their chances for success come January 3. By way of full disclosure, I have not committed to a candidate.
The first item of interest in the last two weeks was the CNBC debate in Michigan. Perry’s prior debate performances had been a major factor in his sharp decline in the polls shortly after he entered the race in mid-August. Early in the debate Perry was having a solid performance, then came the “oops” moment. Perry stumbled while trying to remember the third of three federal departments that he wanted to eliminate. The moderators pressed him on it and he basically had a “brain freeze.” Many in my Twitter feed immediately wrote Perry off, and there’s no doubt that it was a bad moment, but it may not have been the death knell for his campaign. After the immediate reaction many started to recognize that such brain freezes happen to everyone. Even so, Perry had a lot of work to do to make up for that lapse. He started the next morning by going on the morning talk shows and facing the criticism directly. He went on Letterman that night and made fun of his lapse in a Top 10 list. He was also willing to poke fun at himself in campaign events. He even got a very good laugh line out of it at the next debate, where he had a very good performance. Perry did as much as one could to make lemonade out of lemons. He approached his mistake with humor and humility and I think that will go a long way with Iowans in getting past the mistake.
Cain had an oops moment of his own, of sorts. Over the last two weeks Cain was still dealing with the allegations of sexual harassment. Although many Republicans were still skeptical about the allegations, it may very well have put a ceiling on his support. More problematic for him were the lingering concerns about his depth of knowledge on some issues, particularly those involving foreign policy. The CBS/National Journal debate on November 12 focused on foreign policy and although Cain did not do poorly, he certainly didn’t shine. A bigger problem for Cain occurred when a video of his meeting with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was posted. In one particular segment Cain was asked whether he supported President Obama’s actions in Libya. Cain paused and seemed to hesitate and stall for time. He claimed later that he had so many questions thrown at him that he needed to think about the answer and didn’t want to “shoot from the lip.” That would make sense, but it didn’t seem that the editorial board had been grilling him all that badly or that the question was all that complex. Moreover, the hesitation seemed to reinforce concerns about Cain’s lack of knowledge on foreign policy.
Cain seemed to compound this problem by announcing to the New Hampshire Union Leader that his meeting with their editorial board could not be recorded on video and could only be 20 minutes rather than an hour. The Union Leader pushed back on these limitations and it ended up that Cain didn’t make the meeting. The Union Leader claimed Cain skipped the meeting. Cain said it was just a scheduling mix-up. Either way, it looked bad for Cain and it got him bad press that he didn’t need.
As noted above, the CBS/National Journal debate focused on foreign policy. Perry needed a strong performance and got it. Even though more watched the CBS/NJ debate than the prior one where he had his brain freeze, the oops moment was endlessly replayed by other media. Cain didn’t have any really bad moments, but he needed to be stronger to convince people that he was sufficiently knowledgeable on foreign policy. Romney was steady, as usual. Several of the other candidates didn’t get many questions. It turns out this was purposeful on the part of CBS and there was a bit of a flap over it in the days following. Gingrich had a typically strong debate and given Cain’s weakness on the topic this seemed to mark the start of Gingrich’s surge in the polls.
The last major event during this period was the Thanksgiving Family Forum. Unlike the debates, the candidates who attended sat around the table and the Q&A seemed more like a discussion rather than a chance to spit out 60 second prepackaged answers. The purpose of the forum, as indicated by moderator Frank Luntz, was to get a closer look at the character of the candidates. Some on my Twitter feed didn’t seem to like the focus on feelings (“too much Dr. Phil”), but a candidate’s strength of character can often be more important than what he or she knows about some policy issue. Perry and Santorum seemed to have done the best in relating how they recognized a moment of weakness in themselves and learned from it. Ron Paul seemed detached from the discussions, which was odd given the passion he brings to many issues. Gingrich also seemed detached. During the forum Drew Cline of the New Hampshire Union Leader tweeted, “Newt tells emotional personal stories as if he’s narrating a documentary about some historical figure.”
The polls released during the last two weeks have reflected the fluidity of the race. As always, one must be aware of a poll’s sample (all voters, likely voters) and how well it represents the population demographically in terms of the percentages of those in the sample (men/women, D/R, old/young, etc.). I also tend to discount national polls more because the candidates are only campaigning in a few states at this point (even though they are getting national media coverage for many events). In addition, one can usually get a better feel for the state of the race by looking at trends over several polls rather than the results of any one poll.
At the start of this period Cain was still at the top of his surge, but even without the allegations made against him it seemed unlikely that he would maintain that position given his substantive weaknesses and other problems. Over the next two weeks Cain’s poll numbers began to drop and Gingrich began to rise. Romney was generally holding steady during this time. At one point Romney, Cain, and Gingrich were at the top of a few polls, including some specific to Iowa. One reporter asked me about this, noting that it seemed odd that three candidates who do not have much of a ground game in Iowa were leading. I told her that the reason was partly due to timing given the surge and fade that several of the candidates were experiencing. I also noted that it’s much easier to tell a pollster on the phone that you support a particular candidate than to actually turn out for that candidate on caucus night. Identifying supporters and making sure they turn out on caucus night is where a strong ground game comes into play.
With the above in mind, I’ll now turn to a ranking of the candidates as to how I think they would finish if the caucuses were held now. Let me note, however, that the GOP caucus race is much more fluid than in past years and there is likely to be movement as we enter the final weeks of the caucus campaign.
Romney has been steady in national polls for months. Many voters, and caucus-goers, don’t like him for a variety of reasons (apparent flip-flops, Romneycare, etc.), but he regularly polls in the low 20% range. Most Republicans want a candidate who can beat President Obama, but the search for a satisfactory “not-Romney” candidate continues. Bachmann and Perry surged and faded. Cain surged and now seems to be fading as well. Gingrich seems to be the next in line, but it’s unclear whether he will be able to capitalize on any such surge.
It’s well known that Romney has put little effort into Iowa this cycle. Although Romney has said that he wants to win Iowa, he also doesn’t want to raise expectations. Finishing below expectations in Iowa could hurt him in New Hampshire, which is a must win state for him. Thus, Romney has been quietly upping his ground game. He has opened an office in Iowa and his starting to reach out to old and new supporters. Even if these efforts only help to lock in that low 20% support, it could be enough for a win on caucus night if the rest of the field remains splintered.
I place Gingrich second based more on his potential at this point. He is currently enjoying an upswing in the polls, but he has a very meager ground game to turn that increased support into caucus-goers. Early on he said he wanted to run a different type of campaign, which led to the mass walkout of his staffers early in the summer. Gingrich seems to have gotten the message that as useful as new methods may be to reach caucus-goers, the traditional methods are still important. To that end he’s announced the opening of several campaign offices in Iowa and other early voting states. On the other hand, this announcement was made a few weeks ago and the offices still aren’t open. With the holidays approaching time is running short. Gingrich may have been one of the candidates who thought that a surge in the polls meant that he didn’t need to worry as much about a good ground game. My short response is: Good luck with that. If the caucuses were held today Gingrich might have enough support to finish well. I think, however, that without a solid ground game that support will fade as people take a closer look at him and begin to remember some of the reasons they didn’t consider him a strong candidate in the first place.
Paul’s supporters are the most loyal and intense of the candidates. They seem to be much more likely to turn out for him than the supporters for other candidates. Paul also has a good organization in Iowa. Nevertheless, there are limits to Paul’s appeal. Although many Republicans agree with Paul on fiscal issues, his positions on many national security and foreign policy issues do not resonate with the broader Republican base. Shrugging your shoulders about whether Iran gets a nuclear bomb or suggesting that Israel can fend for itself (as he did in previous debates) will not improve his standing with the majority of Republicans.
Turnout is a key to Paul’s finish on caucus night. His followers are more intense, so more likely to attend the caucuses. To the extent that other potential caucus-goers are not enthusiastic for another candidate they may be more likely to stay home. Also, Paul benefits to the extent that the not-Romney caucus-goers do not coalesce around a single candidate. Depending on these factors, I suspect he will finish between second and fourth on caucus night.
Perry stopped his downward spiral in the polls and is working to come back. He has a good organization in the state. Perhaps more important, he has the resources to stay in the race. He has been running several good ads in addition to his regular campaign events. His oops moment didn’t help, but it’s also given him an opportunity to show his character in the way he has handled it. If Gingrich fades, a top three finish in Iowa might allow Perry to do well enough in New Hampshire so that he can be a contender for the not-Romney vote in South Carolina.
Bachmann also has a fairly good ground game in Iowa. Unlike Perry, however, she never had the resources to capitalize on her support when it peaked around the time of the Ames Straw Poll. Some have suggested that Bachmann may get a second look given that Cain seems to be fading and that Gingrich might as well. I’m not so sure because her fade had more to do with substantive concerns than speaking skills.
Santorum has put more effort into Iowa than any of the other candidates. Campaigning in all of Iowa’s 99 counties may not seem like an efficient way to run a campaign, but it certainly shows a willingness to take his message to the people, which is supposed to be what the caucuses are all about. It seems a little odd, therefore, that he’s not doing better in Iowa polls. Even so, Santorum has gotten some key endorsements of late and he just might be the under-the-radar candidate this cycle. In addition, there’s always the chance that if Gingrich fades Santorum will be the next in line to surge (which might be perfectly timed for the January 3 caucuses).
Although Cain is still showing decent support in the polls, he has a very weak ground game. He recently indicated that he has doubled his staff and has 800 precinct captains identified, but it’s hard to judge the extent to which those captains are sufficiently organized for the caucuses.
Photo by Dave Davidson, Prezography.com
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