This is my assessment of the Republican caucus race over the last two weeks. After some discussion of the period’s events and activities I conclude with my estimation of who would win the caucuses if they were held now (though usually with a bit of an eye to January 3.)
The pace is picking up and there was a lot that happened during the last two weeks, but I suppose it’s best to start with Herman Cain’s departure from the race. Cain’s poll numbers were already starting to fall at the start of this period given his problems in the areas of foreign policy and national security, but the revelation of his 13-year “relationship” with Ginger White was too much for most caucus-goers and his numbers released on Friday from the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed a sharp decline. On Saturday Cain announced that he was suspending his campaign. Most seem to think that Newt Gingrich will benefit most from Cain’s departure. Some, however, think that those supporters could go with Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, or even Romney. In terms of actual supporters, it may not make much difference. The Iowa Poll was in the field for four days and it was in the middle of that period that the Ginger White news broke. Pollster J. Ann Selzer indicated that by the end of the polling period Cain was down to 4%, so the bulk of his supporters had already gone elsewhere. The more important aspect of Cain’s departure is how it changes the general dynamic of the race. At the very least it means one fewer candidate on stage for the final pre-caucus debates. It also means the distraction of the allegations will allow the candidates to attempt to focus on the issues more.
The national security debate that began this period proved a bit of a problem for Gingrich. In discussing the problem of illegal immigration he proposed a solution that many took to be a form of amnesty. Gingrich strongly rejected that characterization, but he certainly opened the door to such criticism by indicating that some illegal immigrants would become legal (though not citizens) if they fit certain criteria. This may continue to be an issue for Gingrich, but the initial furor seems to have died down.
Given Gingrich’s surge, it wasn’t surprising that there was an effort by those who don’t support Gingrich (or just don’t think he can win the general election) to remind people why Gingrich wasn’t considered a strong contender even before his campaign imploded last summer. This included reminders of his personal “baggage” (third marriage, affairs, etc.), but these issues don’t seem to be a major concern for most people. Another line of criticism was with the wide variety of policy positions and ideas that Gingrich has been associated with over the years. He has backtracked from some (such as the advertisement with Nancy Pelosi), but explained his way around others. It remains to be seen the extent to which caucus-goers care about past baggage (policy or personal) and whether they think it will affect his overall electability.
Gingrich finally opened an Iowa office this past week. The initial talk was that he would be opening as many as five offices. Steps to open multiple offices were made, but then seemed to fall by the wayside. It now seems that there will be only one office. A campaign can get by with only one office, but it makes coordination a lot more difficult. Of course, Gingrich still doesn’t have a deep organization in the state. Early on Gingrich chose not to run a traditional caucus campaign, I suspect because he doesn’t like that type of retail politics (though he seems comfortable when signing books and such). Regardless of the reason, now that he finds himself at the top of the polls he must play catch-up to get an organization in place that can turn out supporters on caucus night.
Over the remaining weeks Gingrich needs to keep his ego in check. Nearly everyone recognizes that he is very intelligent and extremely well-versed in a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, that includes Gingrich himself. Being the smartest guy in the room doesn’t always mean that you know everything. Gingrich recently assured a reporter that he would be the nominee, a statement he had to quickly walk back. It’s good that he did. Confidence is good, of course, but voters prefer humility to hubris.
Ron Paul took his usual positions in the national security debate. These positions have a strong isolationist flavor and are not particularly palatable to the broader Republican base. Of particular note during the debate was when he argued for ending all foreign aid. This position is understandable given our current debt and deficit problems, and it fits with Paul’s general isolationist positions, but it was roundly criticized as being out of touch with the reality of modern foreign policy and national security. Even so, that position is popular with libertarian-oriented independents who may be persuaded to participate in the GOP caucuses to support Paul.
Michelle Bachmann did well in the national security debate, probably as a result of her membership on the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Although she seems to be gaining back a little ground, she did have two problems during the period. One was when she released a list of 39 supporters in northwest Iowa, but two of the people on the list said they hadn’t actually endorsed Bachmann. The second was when an email list for a home schooling network was used inappropriately by Bachmann’s campaign. These were both characterized as mistakes, but this type of thing tends to feed into the concerns some have about Bachmann.
Rick Perry continued to have TV ads up during this period. The ads are well done, but they don’t seem to be having much effect. According to the latest Iowa Poll results he is languishing in mid-single digits with Santorum. Perry has made visits to Iowa, but according to the DMR’s Candidate Tracker he had fewer events in November than any other candidate actively competing in Iowa. When he does come to the state he doesn’t seem to be working very hard. For example, he was here on November 3 and 4 and had one event each day (again, according to the DMR’s Candidate Tracker). In sharp contrast, Santorum was also in Iowa on November 3 and 4 and held seven events, and those were actually slow days for him as he held six events each of the prior two days. When the Iowa Poll numbers were released Tim Albrecht tweeted that Perry wouldn’t be the first candidate to make the mistake of thinking the caucuses could be won by just mailings and TV advertising. He also suggested that Perry needs to put in a lot more time here over the next few weeks. Although the Candidate Tracker doesn’t show any December events for Perry thus far, he’ll certainly be in the state for the two debates on the 10th and 15th and may do additional events then. In addition, a report in the Dallas Morning News indicated that some 600 Perry volunteers and surrogates will be dispatched to Iowa over the next few weeks to help Perry get his message out.
Rick Santorum seems to be some combination of James Brown and Rodney Dangerfield: the hardest working candidate who gets no respect. It’s hard to pinpoint why. He does well in the debates and hasn’t made any major blunders. There seems to be some suggestion that he’s too earnest (or at least that’s Saturday Night Live’s take on him), but Santorum just says he’s passionate about the issues. He’s tended to focus a bit more social issues, but he’s certainly well-versed in domestic and foreign policy given his time in the Senate. One contributor to a live chat during the Huckabee forum suggested that Santorum was too young, but he’s in his mid-50s. Perhaps the reason is that he’s just not seen as a winner given that he lost his 2006 reelection bid to the Senate, and did so by a wide margin. Granted, 2006 was a year for Democrats, but the size of Santorum’s loss certainly raises concerns for some.
Despite Santorum’s support in the polls being in the mid-single digits, some think that the effort he has put into his Iowa campaign will pay off for him on caucus night. I’ve often described Santorum as the potential “under the radar” candidate of this caucus race. In a recent column for the DMR Kathy Obradovich suggests it’s a myth that Santorum’s time is coming. Although I still think that Santorum will outperform his poll numbers come caucus night, if his supporters are out there it does seem strange that they are not being accounted for in the polls.
Mitt Romney has been steady in the polls so far. The latest Iowa Poll has him down a few points, and actually has him in third behind Gingrich and Paul. Even so, this may be less a matter of Romney losing support than the other two gaining some previously undecided caucus-goers. Of course, third place is still third place and Romney will need to put in more effort in Iowa if he wants to do better than that. In fact, it seems that Romney is planning to increase his effort in Iowa. Although Romney wants to be careful to not raise expectations in Iowa, he also doesn’t want Gingrich to run away with the state, which might affect Romney’s chances in New Hampshire and beyond.
Even though Romney hasn’t put much effort into Iowa thus far, he has a pretty solid base of supporters from his 2007 caucus campaign. He still needs to “activate” that support, but that would take a lot less effort than building one from scratch (as Gingrich basically must). With a bit of effort, Romney could improve on his apparent base and come in first or second, depending on what happens with Gingrich and the rest of the field. To aid Romney’s effort, he picked up the endorsement of South Dakota Senator John Thune and the Sioux City Journal, both of which may help Romney in conservative northwest Iowa. In addition, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican favorite, will be coming to Iowa on behalf of Romney.
With the above in mind, here is my current ranking of the candidates as to how I think they would finish if the caucuses were held now. Again, the Republican caucus race is much more fluid than in past years. Even at this late date the Iowa Poll indicated that some 70% of likely caucus-goers either had not selected a first choice or could be persuaded to support another candidate.
Even though Romney seemed to fall to third, at least according to the latest Iowa Poll, I’m leaving him on top for this period’s ranking. That has more to do with the other candidates than Romney. For his part, Romney remains a steady contender. His supporters in Iowa have mostly stayed with him despite his lack of effort in the state. His few staffers in the state have been working quietly to shore up his existing support. Romney seems a bit worried about Gingrich’s surge, so he seems to be upping his Iowa effort. This involves a greater staff effort, but also TV advertising, more mailers, surrogates, and likely visits by Romney as well. Some of those efforts are to come, but even if the caucuses were held now, Romney’s support is likely solid enough to keep him at the front of the pack, but it’s getting really close.
Gingrich is enjoying a surge in the polls, but whether he will be able to stay on top remains to be seen. Gingrich’s problem at this point is a lack of organization. He’s improving, but it seems slow going. Gingrich himself noted that his sharp rise in the polls was “disorienting.” That can be a problem to the extent that he might not be able to firm up that support before it has a chance to fade. If the caucuses were held now I think there’s a pretty big discount factor that has to be built into Gingrich’s current level of support. Fortunately for Gingrich, he still has four weeks to identify and lock in supporters, line up precinct captains, and so on.
Paul’s support in Iowa seems to be increasing. Some even suggest that he could win the caucuses. Many recognize that Paul’s supporters tend to be more intense and loyal than those of other candidates. It’s also generally recognized that Paul has the strongest organization in the state. It seems a bit odd, therefore, to put him in third. My reason for doing so has to do with Paul’s new supporters. Unlike those who have been with Paul from early on, these may be less committed to him. To the extent they will be first time caucus-goers they are probably much less likely to actually show up at the caucuses. Thus, I would put a fairly high discount factor on these supporters, at least for now.
Despite the missteps noted above, Bachmann seems to be holding steady and even improving a bit. Unlike Perry who also surged and faded, Bachmann had a solid organization and supporter base in place for the Ames Straw Poll. Even to the extent that she hasn’t been able to grow that organization as much as she would have liked, she should still be able to draw on it for the caucuses.
There is some variation in the polls, but Santorum and Perry are mostly in the same place as far as Iowa is concerned. Santorum has put in the work, but Perry has the resources. Perry is going to put on a big push with hundreds of surrogates in the next few weeks, but we’ll have to see whether that’s a successful strategy. I’ve said before that Perry has the resources to give Iowans a chance to take a second look at him. He’s had TV ads in regular rotation for some time, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. Santorum’s efforts still don’t seem to be registering in the polls, but I suspect he’ll outperform those numbers on caucus night.
Photo by Dave Davidson, Prezography.com
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