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January 3rd, 2012

Professor Hagle’s Final Republican Caucus Power Rankings

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Written by: Tim Hagle
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Happy New Year everyone!

It shouldn’t be surprising that the last two weeks have been busy, even with breaks for the holidays. As always, I’ll begin with a summary of significant events from the past two weeks and then give my final power ranking for this caucus cycle.

Two weeks ago Gingrich had passed the peak of his surge and seemed to be trending down hard. Gingrich blamed his dropping poll numbers on the large amount of negative advertising directed his way by the other candidates and the Super PACs supporting them. It’s certainly true that the negative advertising hurt Gingrich, but it wasn’t the only reason his numbers dropped. One particular problem for him was that he didn’t have the resources to respond in kind. He did try to push back on the negative advertising when talking to the press, and even issued a personal challenge of sorts to Romney, but that’s just not the same as having TV advertising or mailers to do the job. A second problem for Gingrich was that the negative information wasn’t just coming from his competitors. Many politicos and pundits were perfectly willing to share negative information about Gingrich, whom they didn’t see as a viable candidate. Third, there was simply a lot of negative information about Gingrich available. There were many reasons Gingrich wasn’t seen as a particularly strong candidate early in the summer of 2011 even before his campaign imploded. He managed to stay in the race and had many strong debate performances. Other candidates surged and fell and largely based on his debate performances it became Gingrich’s turn. It didn’t take long, however, for people to be reminded of Gingrich’s past problems. As much as these included a variety of issues from when he was Speaker of the House, they also included several actions and policy positions he had taken since then. The $1.6 million he took from Freddie Mac was a particular problem and Gingrich’s various explanations generally fell flat.

In addition, Gingrich still seemed to be running what he termed a “nonconventional” campaign. Others would characterize it in less charitable terms. Regardless, Gingrich simply did not have the campaign staff or organization in place to either quickly firm up the support provided by the surge or to respond to the negative attacks that come with being the frontrunner. Ultimately, this fed into the general theme dogging Gingrich that he was disorganized and not focused on the campaign.

There are always plenty of polls as we get closer to the main event and this period was no exception. Some of the polls during this period showed Paul in the lead. Aside from the usual problems of those who take such poll results as fact rather than a sample with a margin of error, some of the polls seemed to oversample Democrats and Independents (No Party). The criterion for being included in such surveys is usually whether the person is a likely Republican caucus-goer, regardless of actual party affiliation. Although one does need to be a registered Republican to participate in the Republican caucuses, it’s also true that one can register on caucus night. Thus, it makes sense to include Democrats or Independents who say they are planning on participating in the Republican caucuses. On the other hand, the number of Democrats and Independents who actually switch is relatively limited. In a year when the Democrats do not have a contested caucus we might expect an increase in Democrat and Independent participation in the Republican caucuses, but it still seemed that these groups were oversampled in some of the polls. The reason that the possible oversampling of Democrats and Independents was a problem was that these survey respondents heavily favored Paul, which would give a false impression of the state of the race at that time.

Regardless of whether the oversampling of Democrats and Independents was justified, that Paul placed first in several polls meant that people were going to take a closer look at him. Other than Paul’s supporters, few thought he had a chance to become the Republican nominee. As such, Paul had largely escaped the scrutiny other candidates had received. Aside from the increased scrutiny that comes with being a frontrunner, some were also concerned about what a Paul victory would mean for the relevancy of the caucuses themselves. Thus, pushback on Paul as the leader was not surprising.

Paul has never been shy about stating his positions on a range of issues. It is, after all, one of the reasons that he has such a loyal following. Nevertheless, he has also emphasized his fiscal positions when trying to appeal to the broader GOP base. Given his rise in the polls, some of the other candidates, particularly Bachmann and Santorum, started to point out directly the “dangerousness” of Paul’s foreign policy positions. As they had with Gingrich, many conservative pundits also weighed in on the various problems with Paul’s foreign policy, often characterizing it to be to the left of President Obama. Aside from his policy positions, Paul also came under fire for a series of newsletters that were published under his name during a period when he was out of Congress. The newsletters contained items that have been characterized as racist and anti-Semitic. Paul has long said that he didn’t write that material and had not read it until it was brought to his attention much later. Although Paul’s supporters seem to accept that explanation, others have not. Many wondered how he could not have known, or why he would allow something to go out under his name without knowing its content. Paul has admitted that he made some mistakes regarding the newsletters. Again, his core supporters will accept that and move on. It will, however, blunt an increase in his support among the broader GOP base.

Santorum continued to pick up several important endorsements from pastors and social conservative leaders. These endorsements were important for two main reasons. First, these are people who can tap into social networks and turn out people on caucus night. These were also the type of people that drove the turnout for Huckabee four years ago. Second, Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum, had long been competing for the same group of social conservatives and although each had picked up endorsements, it seemed that Santorum was beginning to emerge as the more appealing candidate.

Along those lines, there was a bit of a flap following Bob Vander Plaats’s personal endorsement of Santorum. The controversy revolved around Vander Plaats apparently having asked Santorum for funds to publicize the endorsement and also whether he had asked any of the three candidates to drop out so social conservatives could coalesce around the remaining candidate as the more conservative alternative to Romney. Ultimately, these issues became minor, particularly given the crush of other campaign news, and Santorum was not hurt by them.

The last two weeks saw all the candidates on extended tours of Iowa. Turnout at most events seemed very good for all the candidates and it seemed that Iowans were generally getting excited as the caucuses drew nearer.

Paul and Santorum used their appearances to continue the work they had already been putting into the state. Some had complained that Perry had not been spending enough time on the ground. This has always seemed odd given that he is usually very good at retail politics, but his 44-city tour certainly helped build his support a bit. Gingrich announced a 44-city tour, but then cut it back to 22. Turnout was good, but the reduction fed into the theme that he was disorganized. At the very least, given the number of undecided or persuadable voters he missed another opportunity to make his case to many who will attend the caucuses.

Romney’s tour is of particular note, if only because of the lack of overt effort he put into the state this cycle. Unlike Gingrich, or Cain before he dropped out, Romney has a more established base of support in Iowa given the amount of effort he put into the caucuses four years ago. His small staff in the state has been quietly working for several months to firm up that existing support, and perhaps build on it a bit. Romney never wanted to be seen as competing too hard here in Iowa as he didn’t want to raise expectations only to seem the “loser” if he doesn’t win. Like other candidates, Romney had good attendance at his events and there seemed to be a fair amount of enthusiasm for him. In addition, Romney was joined on the campaign trail by several high profile surrogates that nearly “surrounded” Iowa: Senator John Thune (SD), former Senator Norm Coleman (MN), former Senator Jim Talent (MO), Representative Aaron Schrock (IL), and Governor Christie (NJ). Christie seemed particularly effective in making the case for Romney given his popularity. At a time when many potential caucus-goers are undecided or persuadable, Romney’s appearances may be considered “better late than never” by at least some likely caucus-goers.

Bachmann undertook the most ambitious tour, 99 counties in 10 days. Even though it ended up being 11 days, it was still going to be quite a feat. I must admit that I was dubious about embarking on such an extensive tour in such a short period of time. Making 10 or as many as 13 stops in a day would mean that each would be far too short to really engage possible supporters. Twitter reports from the embedded reporters, however, seemed to suggest that on the whole the tour was successful in terms of both saying mostly on time and in turning out supporters to so many stops. That also meant that the tour was likely successful in terms of firming up much of the support Bachmann had before the tour. Unfortunately, an incident that occurred at the end of her tour may have undone much of its success.

The event I’m referring to, of course, is the defection of her Iowa campaign chairman, Iowa State Senator Kent Sorenson, to the Paul campaign. Without getting into specifics, it was a pretty ugly situation that hurt Bachmann’s campaign. Paul’s campaign probably wasn’t hurt by the defection, but I doubt that it was helped any by it. Regardless of how one thought of Bachmann as a candidate, it was an unfortunate end to a lot of work on her part to connect with Iowans.

On Saturday, New Year’s Eve, Craig Robinson offered his predictions/guesses as to both turnout and rank for the various candidates. I agreed with his ranking except for his having Santorum finish second above Paul. Then the Des Moines Register’s poll was released that evening and it seemed to confirm Robinson’s estimates. The general results of the Register’s poll indicated that Romney and Paul were leading with Santorum gaining ground, Perry gaining slightly, and Gingrich and Bachman trending down. The results also showed that in the last two days of the polling there was a clear surge for Santorum. Although the margin of error is higher for that smaller sample, it seemed to capture what many were seeing in terms of the uptick in support and enthusiasm for Santorum.

The big question now for all the campaigns is one of turnout. It seems obvious to say that turnout is important, but getting supporters to turn out for the caucuses isn’t as easy as getting them to vote in a primary or general election. That’s why organization and enthusiasm are so important. It appears the weather will be good on caucus night and most seem to be expecting another record turnout for the Republican caucuses. Even so, who the winner will be will also depend on who turns out in the greatest numbers. Will Paul supporters do so? Will the social conservatives coalesce around Santorum and still turn out? Will those most concerned with electability of the Republican nominee turn out and support Romney? A lot can still change in the two days remaining as I write this, but here is my final power ranking.

1. Romney

Despite the Santorum surge, I think Romney will still prevail, though it could be very close. Romney may not get a lot of those who may have supported the other candidates who are trending down, but he will likely get some of them. Over the last several months some have commented on a general lack of enthusiasm on the part of Republican voters for the field of candidates, but that seems to have changed in the last week. All the candidates will benefit to a certain degree, but Romney will likely do well to the extent he is seen as the most electable for the general election. A strong campaign effort this last week should help to firm up his existing support and to encourage some who were undecided or persuadable to move his way.

2. Santorum

The results of the Register’s poll demonstrated the strength of the surge Santorum is experiencing. I’ve been telling people for months that Santorum was likely to be the “under the radar” candidate this cycle and that seems to be true (though not so under the radar any more). The hard work that he put into his effort here seems to have finally paid off. He was the first to have visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, but he did so over a period of months and spent the time to really connect with voters. They may not have committed to him at the time, but it seems that the good will generated in those campaign events is paying off now. In addition to general support in the polls there also seems to be a higher level of enthusiasm among the Santorum supporters. More specifically, the Santorum supporters seem to be having more fun and enjoying themselves. That’s easy to do when your candidate is ahead, but they seemed to be doing so even before the surge was apparent. The attention to Santorum’s sweater vests is a prime example of this. It was a fun thing to emphasize and talk about. On Twitter there are hashtags and avatars that emphasize the vest, as well as jokes about it (“sleeves only slow Rick down”). Even Santorum got into the spirit of it by probably wearing more of them than he ordinarily would have. For his supporters, it was a sign that he was with them and that they were part of the team. Gingrich tried to make this point when he asked voters to be with him rather than for him. It didn’t work for Gingrich, but has for Santorum. I’ve put Santorum in second for this ranking, but if the surge can be sustained and translated into turnout he could very well win.

3. Paul

Paul led in many recent polls, including those in the last two weeks. He fell back to second in the Register’s most recent poll, and even to third in the final two days of results for that poll. As I noted above, Paul had been largely ignored by the other candidates, mainly because he wasn’t considered a viable contender for the nomination. He became harder to ignore once he began leading the polls and people were reminded of his positions that are well outside the comfort zone for the broader Republican base. On the other hand, these positions are often what attracts Independents and disaffected Democrats to his camp. Over the last few weeks some Republicans may have given Paul a second look, but he seems to have dropped back down a bit as information about his newsletters and foreign policy positions gets more play. Everyone generally recognizes that Paul has the best campaign organization in the state and that his supporters are the most intense. That usually results in strong turnout. Paul’s turnout among his supporters will likely be high, but he won’t gain if overall turnout is high. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but given the limited appeal for Paul’s positions among the GOP base, the higher the turnout the lower Paul’s percentage of it will be.

4. Perry

Perry has been slowly ticking up in recent polls. This seems to have largely been on the strength of his ability to have had TV advertising up for the last several weeks. The advertising didn’t seem to have much effect for the first four weeks or so, but is now doing so. Pro-Perry advertising has hit both Gingrich and Romney hard and Perry seems to have gained some from it. Unfortunately for Perry, the Santorum surge caught him by surprise and Perry’s attempts to direct some of his attacks toward Santorum may not be successful. Perry has long had a strong campaign organization. He hasn’t done as many events as he probably should have, but his efforts of the last week have firmed up his existing support. The one problem that has to concern Perry is whether the social conservatives start to coalesce around Santorum. With Bachmann’s campaign apparently collapsing, it’s possible that some Perry supporters may also move to Santorum as the social conservative candidate who may be their best bet to be the more conservative alternative to Romney. If such movement occurs it may affect Perry’s overall outcome.

5. Gingrich

It’s not entirely surprising that Gingrich fell in the polls almost as fast as he rose. Without a strong campaign organization in place he wasn’t able to capitalize on firming up supporters while at the surge’s peak. He also didn’t have the resources to fight back once the negative attacks were directed at him. Beyond those problems, he also continued to display the apparent lack of discipline and focus that he had been accused of previously. He said he was going to open five campaign offices in Iowa and ended up with one, and a second opening just a few days before the caucuses. He said he was going on a 44-city tour that then ended up being cut in half. He boastfully claimed he was going to be the nominee and then had difficulty getting on the ballots in Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia. Gingrich attempted to explain away these and other problems, but their cumulative effect seemed to be to undercut confidence in his ability to mount an effective and successful general election campaign. Gingrich has been getting good attendance at his recent events and he might end up in fourth, but given the trend fifth seems more likely right now.

6. Bachmann

Until about a week ago Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum were running neck and neck in their competition for the social conservatives. Although Bachmann boasts of a large number of pastors who endorsed her, the endorsements obtained by Santorum seemed to be of greater value, and many were by those who had supported Huckabee four years ago. Bachmann might have been able to hold most of her supporters had it not been for the Sorenson defection. That defection coming when and how it did along with the related firing of another high level staffer seemed to be the straw that broke the back of her campaign. To the extent that social conservatives are concerned that their split among three candidates might end up producing a Romney victory, it seems that many of those leaning to her may now be looking to Santorum or another candidate.

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About the Author

Tim Hagle

Hagle is a lawyer and a political scientist with expertise in American and judicial politics. He regularly comments on federal, state, and local elections; grassroots and student organizing; and Republican politics. Hagle is faculty advisor to the University of Iowa College Republicans and the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. He has been a member of the Johnson County Republican Central Committee. Hagle completed two years of service at the United States Department of Justice in the Office for Victims of Crime and the National Institute of Justice. He was also appointed by President Bush to serve on the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, a committee that oversees the writing of a history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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