In less than a month, Iowans will head out on a cold winter night to their local precinct caucuses. With Herman Cain ending his campaign over the weekend and the polls continuing to be volatile, there is little certainty of what will happen on caucus night. Still, the latest Des Moines Register poll gives us a glimpse of where things currently stand.
Before breaking down where the candidates stand, there are a couple of important things to note. First, Herman Cain’s exit from the field changes the dynamics of the race. Eleven percent of those surveyed by the Des Moines Register were undecided. Cain garnered another 8 percent. That means there is almost 20 percent of the vote up for grabs, which is enough for anybody to take the lead.
When discussing the undecided vote, conventional wisdom suggests that most of them will go to the frontrunner. That makes sense in a head-to-head contest, but in a seven-candidate field, that might not be the case, especially in a volatile campaign like this one. In fact, one could argue that those who remain undecided are not likely to support any of the top three finishers in the poll. Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney are all well-known people, which means that if these undecideds were open to supporting the top three, they would probably already be doing so.
It’s also possible that those undecideds may also have strong feelings about Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, two candidates who at one time led in the poll. That leaves just a few options left. The undecideds may either settle for the frontrunner, an unknown like Rick Santorum, or they just might not vote at all. Regardless of where they ultimately go, two-thirds of respondents said that they could be persuaded to support a different candidate.
That means one thing: buckle your seat belts, folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
First place in Des Moines Register Poll with 25 percent
It is truly amazing how far Newt Gingrich has come in the last few months. Back in August, Gingrich attended the Iowa Straw Poll as a spectator. He walked the grounds and drew a big crowd when he spoke at TheIowaRepublican.com tent, but Gingrich seemed like a second-class citizen that day. Today, Gingrich is the toast of the town and is leading in both Iowa and national polls. If Gingrich’s campaign has taught us anything, it’s the value of persistence.
While Gingrich is currently riding high, he must remember that he hasn’t won anything yet. As a teacher of history, Gingrich should respect the volatility of the polls during this campaign. Six different candidates have led in the polls only to see it all slip away. However, I think there is a difference between Gingrich and candidates like Bachmann, Perry, and Cain who all spent time as atop Iowa polls.
Gingrich has been a national figure for decades. For the past ten years, he has been a frequent visitor to Iowa. He’s headlined GOP dinners, campaigned across the state for Iowa candidates, and even held workshops for Iowa Republican activists. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain didn’t start traveling to Iowa until they were basically bone fide presidential candidates. That’s not the case with Gingrich, and all of the groundwork that he laid is now paying dividends.
Gingrich is also better equipped to handle the spotlight of being the frontrunner because he’s been examined under these same bright lights before when he was Speaker of the House. He has also been a cable news commentator for years. But even more importantly, Gingrich is equipped to defend himself better than any other candidate in the field. All of these factors lead me to believe that Gingrich will hold on to his poll numbers.
What Gingrich needs to be worried about is that the he is now cemented as the frontrunner in Iowa. The national media has obsessed about the “anti-Romney” candidate in Iowa, but they forget that it really has nothing to do with Romney. What Iowa is known for is identifying the alternative candidate to the frontrunner. With Newt as the frontrunner, it means that the final month of this campaign may give birth to an alternative to Gingrich, not Romney.
Second place in Des Moines Register Poll with 18 percent
It would be wise for the mainstream media to begin paying attention to Ron Paul. The Paul campaign is probably the best organized and most dedicated in the state. Instead of attempting to organize every precinct of every county, the Paul campaign seems content to mine for votes where their candidate is the most popular – college campuses. It’s a smart strategy and one that will likely pay off.
Paul’s other strength is his media team, which has produced the best television commercials of the entire race. The ads highlight his consistency and also remind voters of his opponents’ weaknesses with out turning people off. In a race that has seen far fewer TV ads this time around, Paul’s ground game and TV presence is a dangerous combination.
If anything, Paul’s strong showing in the Register’s poll will only motivate his dedicated supporters even more. The idea of winning is no longer just a dream, it’s a real possibility.
Third place in Des Moines Register Poll with 16 percent
Having slipped from first to third place, Romney may have waited too long to reengage in Iowa. Romney’s campaign has been so focused on managing his expectations in Iowa that it seems like they forgot that the goal of any campaign is to actually win. His campaign has bet the farm that New Hampshire is Romney’s firewall, but while he has over managed his expectations in Iowa, his expectations in New Hampshire are out of whack. Romney has build more than a 20 point lead in the polls in New Hampshire, a number that could be impossible for him to put up on primary day. Romney may win New Hampshire, but he likely can’t beat his expectations there.
Gingrich poses a real problem for Romney. While he has been painted as the anti-Romney, he’s actually the first candidate in this race who can make a play for Romney’s supporters in Iowa. Like Romney, Gingrich is an establishment candidate, and if he is able to win Iowa, Romney might not be able to slow him down enough to prevent him from winning South Carolina and Florida.
Romney’s strength as a candidate has always been his ability to fundraise or self finance a campaign. Frankly, that is something that most voters don’t care about. What they are passionate about are issues and the direction of the county. During the entire race Romney has been solid, but also uninspiring. Romney now must go on the offensive. He needs to either use Iowa as a firing range to blow holes in a candidate like Gingrich, or he needs to actually put forth an effort to actually win here in order to create some much-needed momentum.
Fourth place in Des Moines Register Poll with 8 percent
Bachmann’s eight percent in the Register’s poll is exactly where she was in their poll in October. Since riding high before the Iowa Straw Poll, Bachmann has settled in as a single-digit candidate who, like a number of other candidates, is struggling to gain momentum.
There are other signs that confirm Bachmann’s standing in the polls. In an attempt to support their candidate, Bachmann’s Iowa staff calls in to radio shows and posts comments on-line, but they also spend ample time pointing out Rick Santorum’s flaws. While the two are fighting for the exact same type of voter, the actions of Bachmann’s campaign are beginning to show that frustration is growing in her campaign.
As has been the case for her entire campaign, Bachmann is a solid performer in debates and campaign events. There just seems to be some sort of obstacle that she just can’t overcome. While many Iowans like the Congresswoman, they may not like her enough to give her their vote on January 3rd.
Without the hoopla and media attention that she received when she entered the race, Bachmann needs to do something so that she can pull away from Perry and especially Santorum. That’s been made more difficult since Santorum has been the recipient of endorsements from some prominent social conservative leaders instead of Bachmann.
Fifth place tie in Des Moines Register Poll with 6 percent
It’s difficult to understand Perry’s Iowa campaign strategy. While he’s campaigned in the state, his recent trips to Iowa have not included many town hall meetings or public forums that allow voters the ability to come out and meet the candidate. Instead, Perry is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads, and it’s obviously not working.
The parallels between Perry’s campaign and Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign four years ago are also striking. That said, Perry makes Thompson, who was criticized for not wanting to campaign hard, look like an endurance runner. Perry is a likable guy and the best thing his campaign could be doing is getting him in front of as many Iowans as possible.
Even more confusing was the Perry campaigns decision to announce the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for his combative stance against illegal immigration, in New Hampshire instead of Iowa. Perry stands at just 2.8 percent in the New Hampshire polls, and tackling the immigration issue in Iowa may have done him a lot of good.
It is rumored that Perry is about to embark on an extensive Iowa bus tour, but it may be too little to late. While there is opportunity out there for Perry to gain support, the Register poll showed that 60 percent of voters could still change their minds, so he should have been caravanning across the state in November. Perry only visited three counties in November - Polk, Marion, and Scott.
If Perry is serious about winning the Republican nomination, he needs to get serious about winning Iowa, and as he now knows, it takes more than just radio and TV ads.
Fifth place tie in Des Moines Register Poll with 6 percent
Just like Perry, Santorum is stuck at six percent even after investing heavily in Iowa. The only difference is that instead of investing a million dollars of paid media, Santorum has invested thousands of hours by campaigning all across the state. There seems to be a buzz for Santorum, but it never seems to translate in to a bump in the pull numbers. Maybe like everyone else who has led an Iowa poll, he needs a heavy dose of national media attention to give his campaign the shot in the arm that it needs.
One thing that we shouldn’t overlook is that Santorum’s grassroots strategy doesn’t necessarily pay instant dividends because it might not show up in the polls. Just look at the 2010 gubernatorial primary. The Des Moines Register’s poll showed Branstad with a commanding 19-point lead right before the June primary. Yes Branstad still won, but the Election Day margin was half of that. That means there is a chance that the polls are simply not picking up on signs of Santorum’s ground game.
What Santorum, and for that matter Bachmann and Perry, need to focus on is surprising people on caucus night. With only one month to go, it is unlikely that we will see another candidate surge in the polls. If any of them can pull off a shocker on January 3rd, they will receive a seismic boost.
Seventh place in Des Moines Register Poll with 2 percent
I’ll provide Huntsman analysis if he ever shows his face in Iowa. I’ll guarantee that he doesn’t even get two percent on caucus night.
Photo by Dave Davidson, Prezography.com
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