Tag Archives: Iowa caucus; 2012 Republican nomination

Five Points to Remember About the Iowa Caucuses

Tonight, finally, Iowans cast the first meaningful votes of the 2012 election cycle.  Here are five aspects of the process to keep in mind.

A.  Logistics. There are 1,774 caucus precincts located mostly in public buildings (churches, schools, etc.) but often private homes.  Caucusing starts promptly at 8 p.m. eastern time.  Expect about 100,000 people to participate.  Who participates and in what numbers, of course, is crucial to the outcome.  Deliberations tend to be short – each candidate has the right under Republican Party rules to have one surrogate at each precinct to give a brief speech on the candidate’s behalf. These don’t usually last more than a couple of minutes, which means results start trickling in very quickly – usually within a half hour.  Note that after the speeches, Republicans vote by secret ballot – the ballots are counted on location and the results announced there, and phoned in to party headquarters (which this year has been moved to an undisclosed location).  I expect that the networks will be able to make a call by 9:30 eastern time at the latest.

B. Note that there is no 15% threshold requirement in order to stay in the delegate hunt. This is in contrast to the Democrat caucus where, because of the 15% threshold, and because voting takes place openly, there tends to be more on-site movement;  if your candidate doesn’t reach that threshold in the initial go around, a caucus participant can relocate in the meeting room and throw support to another candidate.  The Republican process of voting by secret ballot, in contrast, will make it less likely that supporters for second-tier candidates will switch support at the last moment.

C. No actual delegates will be chosen today.  Instead what Iowans are doing in the caucuses (see a description of the process here) is choosing representatives to the county caucuses to be held in March.  Final state-wide delegate selection doesn’t occur until June, after a multi-step process involving two more stages, and which typically ends after the overall nomination race is essentially decided.  The media, of course, will try to estimate how many delegates each candidate will receive in June based on today’s initial vote, but it is only an estimate, and the totals will likely change as the process moves along. Ultimately, Iowa will send 28 delegates to the national convention, with ten chosen statewide, three each from each of the four congressional districts, three uncommitted party members, and three “bonus” delegates.  So, Iowa will eventually contribute about 1% of the 2,286 delegates attending the Republican convention in August.

D. Yes, the Democrats are caucusing too.  Since Obama is running unopposed, the most interesting part of that process is whether the Occupy Iowa movement will succeed in packing enough precincts to clear the 15% threshold, putting them in line to advance to the next round of the process under the “uncommitted” banner.

E. This is a media event.  By that I mean the reason we pay attention to the outcome is because the media, dating back to 1972, has decided that the results are important.  That means there are really two stories unfolding today: how the candidates actually do, and – more importantly – how the media and the candidates then spin those results.  Remember – we don’t enter today with a blank slate. Instead, the media has been crafting an on-going narrative to explain the results. Part of that process involves the expectations game – determining what constitutes success or failure in terms of that on-going narrative.  Candidates will either buy into or push back against that narrative depending on how it is perceived to affect their chances down the road, beginning with New Hampshire and South Carolina.  I’ll devote a separate post to that expectations game later today (grading willing).  But the general rule of thumb for candidates is as follows:

1. If you are leading or are close to the lead, play down expectations while simultaneously trying to telegraph to supporters and the undecideds that momentum is on your side.  This is not always easy to do.  So yesterday Newt Gingrich first said he wasn’t going to win, and then an hour later back tracked to say he still could, given the large number of undecideds.

2.  If you are polling badly, never acknowledge the validity of the polls. Instead, point to the undecideds, draw on a useful historical analogy – Bachmann’s choice seems to be biblical events (“My support will multiply like loaves of bread!”) – and play up the possibility of a “miracle”.

3. Remember, the media will try to trap each candidate into specifying how they think they will do today. Never give an honest answer, lest it come back to bite you!   When asked what would constitute a good finish, respond with platitudes and generalizations.  “Well, we expect to do well here. “  “I like our chances”.  “No matter what happens we are moving on to New Hampshire”.

Questions anyone?  No?  Ok, back to grading.  I’ll be back on later this afternoon with a last minute assessment of what’s likely to happen.

All Iowa, All The Time: Who Will Finish Second?

With less than a week to go before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, the latest PPP Iowa poll continues to show Ron Paul in a slight lead over Mitt Romney, with Newt Gingrich in third.  None of the numbers have changed very much since the last PPP poll from a week ago.   As I noted then, Paul’s lead is predicated on the assumption that independents and Democrats will show up in considerably greater numbers in the Republican caucus than they did in 2008 – a not unreasonable forecast given that there is no Democratic caucus this time around. In the PPP poll, fully 16% of those polled voted in the Democratic caucus in 2008 – not the Republican.  Whether Democrats will actually turn out in those numbers is the key to evaluating these polls.

As Mark Blumental notes at Pollster.com, most recent Iowa polling tells a similar story to the latest PPP results: Paul holding a slight lead over Romney, with Gingrich trailing both by about 4-5%. Here’s Pollster’s listing of the six previous Iowa polls, and the trends.

As I’ve repeatedly cautioned, however, these polls are based on assumptions regarding the level and composition of the Republican caucus come Jan 3 – assumptions that involve not a little guesswork. Remember, only about 5% of Iowa’s roughly 2 million registered voters will actually attend the caucuses.  In this vein, Blumenthal looks at past polling the week before the Republican Iowa caucus to see how reliable it was.  As this chart shows, in general the final week polls do a good job forecasting the winner.

When they have been off, however, it usually has been in underestimating the support for the second-place candidate.  (The exception was Romney in 2008 who slightly underperformed his final polling numbers.)  Why might this be?  Note that each of the three instances in which the Iowa polls underestimated the second place finisher’s vote involved a social conservative.  To me that suggests that conservative voters, who tend to turn out disproportionately in caucus events, essentially solved their “coordination” problem in the final week and decided to support a single candidate who came closest to embodying their values. Now look at the Republican candidates in 1996, 2000 and 2004.  In each of these races there were potentially two or more candidates who could appeal to the social conservatives. And in the end these voters tend to move in large numbers to the candidate who came closest to their social conservative views. So, in 1988 conservatives really had to select from among Pete DuPont, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson.  Most of the undecideds went to Robertson. Eight years later conservatives could choose from among Phil Gramm, Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan.  They broke late for Buchanan. Finally, in 2000 Gary Bauer, Keyes, Forbes and Orrin Hatch battled for the conservative vote, with Forbes getting most of the late deciders. What about 2008?  Here Huckabee really faced no opposition for the conservative vote, and he won their support early.

So what does this say for 2012? Here’s where things get tricky.  Paul’s libertarian values are not fully compatible with a true social conservative’s world view; most of his polling support comes from independents, Democrats, ideological moderates and young voters.  That’s not the profile of the voting bloc that pushed Huckabee to the top four years ago or that coalesced behind conservative candidates in the past. If I’m right, this suggests that Paul may have reached his ceiling at about 22%. Nor do I see these voters flocking to Romney – his support in the polls this time around hasn’t even consistently reached the 25% he won in 2008.

So where will the true conservatives go? Note that evangelical Christians constitute about 47% of the projected caucus turnout. Fully 52% of those surveyed get their news primarily from Fox.  Right now, the four other candidates – Gingrich, Perry, Santorum and Bachmann – are winning a combined 44% of the polling vote.  If any of the four could win over this vote, they would take the caucus easily over Paul or Romney.  But is anyone primed to do so?

At this point, the barrage of negative ads targeting Gingrich these last two weeks may have fatally wounded his support among conservatives. In the PPP poll, his unfavorability rating is the highest of all six candidates. He is counting on a last minute advertising campaign launched by a SuperPac to turn those numbers around, but it may be too late.

That leaves Perry, Santorum and Bachmann.  Of these Santorum has the highest favorability/unfavorability rating in the PPP poll, at 56/29 (with 15%) unsure, and he is the second choice of 14% of those polled, which is the strongest support in this category. But these figures are only slightly better than Bachmann’s, who’s the second choice of 12% of those polled, (tied with Gingrich for second in this category), and who has a 53/37/10 favorable/unfavorable/don’t know rating. Perry is the second choice of 10%, with 48/40 favorable/unfavorable ratings. But he has the strongest media presence in the state, vastly outspending Bachmann and Santorum on paid advertising. I tend to think that Santorum may have stronger upside  than Bachmann, primarily because of his higher stature as a former Senator which may give him a bit more credibility; Bachmann is still fighting the perception that she’s less seasoned.

However, keep in mind that social issues are cited as the most important problem by only 12% of those surveyed, and illegal immigration by only 3%. In contrast to past years Iowan caucus goers are focused primarily on jobs and the economy which could play more to Perry’s strengths than to Santorum’s or Bachmann’s.

Finally, 28% of those surveyed say they may yet switch to another candidate, and 5% say they are unsure of who to support.

In considering all these factors, it seems to me that there’s a high likelihood that social conservatives won’t coalesce behind any single candidate this time around.  If they don’t solve their “coordination” problem and split the vote, that benefits Paul and Romney.  And here’s where the media expectation game becomes important – even though neither of the two frontrunners will have commanded anywhere near a strong plurality of the Iowa vote (never mind a majority), the media will invariably suggest that one of these will have the “momentum” coming out of Iowa and heading into New Hampshire.  That won’t be true, strictly speaking, but that will hardly matter to the media coverage.

Before we get to that point, however, there’s still six days to go in Iowa and the race remains very fluid – much more so than in past years. Conservatives may yet decide to rally behind a single person – if they do, that candidate will be the perceived winner coming out of Iowa, and they may be the actual winner as well.

In the meantime, if anyone tells you they know what is going to happen, they are lying. Unless it’s me.

Stay tuned.

Don’t Fear The Reaper? The Latest Iowa Poll Results

What if the Iowa caucus results don’t matter?

I raise the question in light of the most recent Iowa poll that shows Gingrich’s support almost halved during the last two weeks, from about 27% to 14%, putting him third behind Paul (23%) and Romney (20%), both of whom saw their numbers remain relatively stable.

Q2 If the Republican candidates for President were Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum, who would you vote for?

Michele Bachmann ………………………………….. 10%

Newt Gingrich …………………………………………. 14%

Jon Huntsman…………………………………………. 4%

Gary Johnson …………………………………………. 2%

Ron Paul ………………………………………………… 23%

Rick Perry ………………………………………………. 10%

Mitt Romney……………………………………………. 20%

Rick Santorum………………………………………… 10%

Someone else/Not sure ……………………………. 7%

(The best part of the PPP poll? 31% of respondents think Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and 21% aren’t sure.  Donald Trump can still win this race!) The RealClear politics aggregate polling now show Newt (green) in essentially a dead heat in Iowa with Paul (brown) and Romney (purple), but the trend lines are going in the wrong direction for the Newtster.

This is to be expected given the blanketing of the Iowa airwaves with anti-Newt advertising – much of it financed not by other candidates, but by the so-called superpacs working on those candidates’ behalf.  For example, since Newt rose to the top of the polls a Romney shadow PAC called Restore Our Future has spent several million dollars funding at least one attack ad targeting Gingrich and another favoring Romney. Paul, of course, has been running his “serial hypocrisy” ad against Gingrich for a couple of weeks now.  At the same time, these groups are running positive ads for their own candidates as well – here’s one supporting Rick Perry:

All this is taking a toll on Gingrich’s poll numbers, particularly since he still has a minimal media presence in the state.  He is now the second choice of 13% of Iowans, essentially tied in that category with Perry, Romney and Bachmann – but behind “Someone else/Not Sure” at 18%.  His favorability/unfavorability numbers have declined to 46/47, behind the more positive numbers of almost everyone else except Huntsman.

Of perhaps greater significance than Newt’s slide, however, is where his support is going. It’s not to Paul or Romney, both whom are essentially treading water in Iowa.  Instead, it appears that former Newt backers are now splitting their support between Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum, all of whom are at 10% in the last PPP poll, and whose aggregate polling trend lines are all inching north.

This raises an interesting possibility. Historically, Iowa serves two purposes. First, the winning candidate can get a boost in media coverage and funding, particular if the victory exceeds media expectations. Think Obama in 2008.  Equally important, however, Iowa has often served a winnowing function, culling second-tier candidates from the field.   A lot can happen in two weeks, of course, but right now Iowans don’t seem prepared to rule any Republican out of the race.  Fully 37% of Iowans still say they may support someone other than the candidate they are currently backing. That’s a lot of uncertainty.  The current conventional wisdom is that a candidate must finish in the top three in Iowa to remain viable. I’m not sure that’s true.  If there are three, or four, candidates  who each get 10-12%, and who are clustered behind the two leaders (say, Romney and Paul),  it’s possible they might all retain enough backing to stay in the race, particularly considering the proportional allocation of delegates that Republicans are using in the early contests.   Indeed, if no clear frontrunner emerges for the Republican nomination, some pundits are looking ahead to the possibility of a brokered convention.  It’s far too early to contemplate that outcome.  But it’s not too early to wonder whether, in Iowa, any Republican will be winnowed from the field after Jan. 3.  Maybe it’s true, after all – there’s no need to fear the Reaper.