Onward Christian Soldiers! (The Latest Iowa Polls)

The Boston Globe headlined yesterday’s paper, “Momentum in Iowa Tilting Toward Romney”.  That’s not what I’m seeing based on the two most recent Iowa polls.

It is of course, a truism that the outcome of tomorrow’s Iowa caucus will depend on which candidate has the most effective get-out-the-vote organization.  But the latest – and likely the last – polls to come out of Iowa give some insight into how different turnout scenarios tomorrow will matter.  The first poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, surveyed 1,340 likely caucus goers, with 50% surveyed on Sunday and the remaining 50% on Monday (margin of error +/- 2.7).  The second, conducted by Insider Advantage, was released this morning without supporting detail, so buyers beware.  Both polls use automated telephone surveys.

The topline results of both polls are similar, and consistent with recent polling in Iowa. PPP has the race a dead heat between Paul (20%), Romney (19%) and Santorum (18%).  InsiderAdvantage scores it similarly, with Romney at 22.7%, Paul 22.4% and Santorum at 18%.  Gingrich is 4th in both polls. Both polls testify to Santorum’s surge; a week ago PPP had him at 10%, so he’s gained 8% since then. Four days ago InsiderAdvantage listed him 4th, at 13.4% – he’s picked up almost 5% there.  Moreover, Santorum may still be climbing; in the PPP poll those who say they decided who to back in the last week went disproportionally for Santorum, with 29% choosing him versus 17% deciding to back Romney and only 13% turning to Paul.  Santorum continues to have the highest favorable/unfavorable ratio of all the candidates as well, at 60/30.  And he is the second choice of 14% of voters, compared to 11% who would switch to Romney, and 8% to Paul (all from the PPP poll).

But here’s where turnout makes a difference. The InsiderAdvantage surveys includes 51% women – that’s a far higher proportion than the actual proportion in 2008, when women constituted only 44% of caucus goers. Similarly, the PPP sample includes 48% women – again on the high side. In contrast, the Des Moines poll weighted their sample to include only 39% women.  This suggests to me that both the PPP and the InsiderAdvantage poll may be overestimating Romney’s support,  since he does much better among women; his support among female voters tops the field in both polls, with Santorum second.

What about independents? The PPP poll only includes 18% independents, while the InsiderAdvantage survey includes 26% from this group.  The Des Moines Register poll, which does not weight by party, included 22% independents, but J. Ann Selzer, in her analysis of the Des Moines poll, indicated she saw a potential increase in the number of independents who might participate. Ron Paul runs the strongest among these voters in all three polls, and by wide margins; he typically gets more than 30% of their vote, with no other candidate breaking 20%.  So, which proportion is correct?  Is it 18%, 22% or 26%? I have no idea.

Finally, there is the age factor. Romney does best among those 65 and older, and again by wide margins; he gets 27% support in the PPP poll and 39% among this group in InsiderAdvantage. No one else breaks 20% support in this age bracket in either poll.   In 2008 this age group constituted 27% of voters, but the Des Moines poll found only 20% of the likely caucus goers came from the 65-and-over group (they actually oversampled from this group to get their final numbers).  If the actual number of 65-and-above voters is closer to 20%, both the PPP and InsiderAdvantage poll are likely overstating Romney’s support.

Keeping in mind all the usual caveats regarding margin of errors, turnout, etc., I’m not seeing – contrary to the Globe headline – momentum shifting to Romney at all. Instead, he appears to have peaked at a level of support below what he received four years ago.  Similarly, Paul’s support may be softening just a bit if I’m reading the last three polls correctly.   I don’t think either is going to come in much higher than the 18-22% they are getting in these last three polls.

Instead, I think the outcome of this race hinges on Bachmann and Perry.  Neither has seen much movement in the last week and both are fighting to prevent defections from their support to Santorum. Perry, in particular, has been hammering Santorum on earmarks in the last few days, but it may be too late to have an impact. Bachmann has been hurt by the highly publicized defection of a key staff member to Paul.  If enough of their support drifts to Santorum, he is poised to win this race, despite polling in single digits three weeks ago. Both are working hard to prevent this. Bachmann has a new television ad up and Perry has hit most of the major media outlets in recent days to bash the other Rick.

If Santorum pulls this out, he may yet vindicate the “old style” of face-to-face retail campaigning that traditionalists – and many political scientists – insist is the key to winning Iowa.  So far Santorum has spent 108 days campaigning in Iowa – Romney has been there only 18.  If I can, I’ll try to get my colleague Bert Johnson, who is in Iowa today and tomorrow, to provide an update on the candidates’ ground games later today. For now, however, the keys to this race are turnout among independents, women and the 65-and-older group.

Meanwhile, grading willing, I’ll be up with a post later that describes a bit more about how the caucuses work.

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