There is little doubt of the continued fluidity within the GOP field, and Iowa — as home to fiscal and social conservatives searching for an ideal candidate — remains one of the best places (if not the best) to ride the roller coaster of the 2012 Republican nomination and presidential election.
Our 14th edition of the GOP Power Rankings is compiled in the same way as our first was in March. We rely on the opinions and predictions of Iowans — academics, grassroots activists, political reporters and consultants. As part of the caucus process, these are the individuals most closely watching the candidates and their campaigns and they are best able to provide a snapshot in time based on volunteer excitement, Iowa appearances, grassroots support and state and national messaging. In short, the 2012 contest isn’t their first rodeo. So, even if not scientific, the Rankings have proven to be a valuable tool in determining trends within the presidential field.
For this particular edition, there are numerous trends emerging — so many, in fact, that it is difficult to make any broad statements of fact concerning the field. The candidate that was miles ahead weeks ago, is bottoming out. An old favorite appears to be renewing. Perhaps most importantly, a candidate that isn’t expected to take Iowa appears to be the most significant benefactor of the uncertainty.
So, if the caucuses were held today, this is the way the Power Rankings panelists think the night would end:
Rick Perry — As was the case for our last edition, we must caution against too much being read into our top placement of the Texas governor. What the panelists see is soft support. That is support that seems ready to go elsewhere … if only such an elsewhere would actually materialize.
“Perry came on to the scene strong, but has done absolutely nothing since that time to keep himself in the top slot — barely enough one-on-one or small group appearances, where he does do well, to keep him in the top tier,” a panelist notes.
Another adds, “Perry’s debate performances have been dismal, and that’s probably the best that I can say about it. The campaign right now is level, like a playground teeter-totter, and can simply fall either way.”
In the past, even as national polls barely registered the presidential aspirations of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the panelists were able to judge staff choices and ground game to keep him in their top three. Unfortunately, they are not seeing the necessary organization being built by Perry in the Hawkeye State. Without such a firm foundation, they surmise, the campaign simply cannot sustain a persistent onslaught of negative national polling and news stories.
“Where is the Perry organization? Have you seen it? Have you felt it? I haven’t. It’s as if he wanted to come into the Iowa as ‘the chosen’ and ride through the caucuses on the belief that he was the guy who could rally all the facets of the GOP. Now that maybe his team has found that to be true, perhaps his Iowa activists will receive more than telephoned explanations of bad national performances. Maybe we’ll see a little retail politicking.”
Ron Paul — While Perry barely maintains the top slot because his support is perceived as being soft, Paul remains in second for the opposite reason: a very firm core of support.
“Is Dr. Paul the GOP’s guy? No, I still don’t think that’s the case. But what I do see is him being the only person in Iowa who has an existing base and who is rallying that base,” a panelist said.
Another adds, “The increasing fracturing of the conservative base opens the door for Paul, who at this point is the only candidate who seems to have loyal supporters willing to vote for him no matter what.”
As the panelists have previously noted, however, there seems to be little, if any, growth for Paul in Iowa.
“[Paul] may gain a few folks who put emphasis on the fiscal issues. As usual, however, Paul’s positions on other issues will tend to drive the broader Republican base.
“Paul called the recent killing of Anwar al-Awlaki an ‘assassination.’ Even though some might not be troubled by the use of that word, Paul certainly meant it in a negative way and it brought to mind his prior comments about how we (the U.S.) brought this on ourselves. Regardless of how Republicans feel about the manner in which al Awlaki met his death, not many beyond the libertarian base agree with Paul’s more isolationist rhetoric.”
More troubling for Paul is the fact that while his campaign scored well in the Ames Straw Poll, it hasn’t performed to the same level in other straw polls that do not open voting to all individuals who attend. For instance, in Florida and Michigan the Paul campaign earned 10 and 8 percent, respectively.
“If the caucuses are held in the middle of a blizzard, Paul’s supporters are faithful enough that they are going to be there. The same can’t be said generally of the other candidates’ supporters at this time. If the other supporters don’t show, Paul wins Iowa and wins big. But if he is forced to go toe-to-toe with others, he continues to garner his 15 percent, which isn’t enough to win on caucus night.”
Mitt Romney — It’s been said that roughly 60 percent of the Iowa GOP is social or religious conservative, and that this demographic has historically found the former Massachusetts governor unappealing as a Republican presidential nominee.
What 2012 is showing, however, is that when religious and social conservatives are fractured, an opening exists for Romney — even when he is not actively campaigning in the state.
“Iowans may have ‘new eyes’ for Romney, but he’ll have a tough time winning over the more conservative (and often more fervent) voters here. He’ll, of course, have to spend more time in the state before the caucus, whenever those will be, to stay at the top. But for now he tops the list, simply because the other candidates’ stars seem to be fading and Chris Christie keeps saying ‘no.’”
The most interesting thing about U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s message of “don’t settle,” is that it is already a well-kept campaign chant among Iowa’s most conservative Republicans.
“There is no one candidate that the social conservatives find appealing enough to embrace and unify around. That candidate doesn’t exist right now. And, more to the point, that candidate was never going to be Bachmann for the simple fact that she is female — something that the most orthodox find objectionable in a president. … What comes of the GOP’s social conservatives not settling is a widespread base that benefits only those candidates that are generally found exceptionally unappealing to those voters. Specifically, a common decision to not ‘settle’ benefits Romney, especially here in Iowa.”
While this is a common thread of agreement by our panelists, it is not an unanimous sentiment.
“Romney doesn’t have the organization in place to capitalize in IA on the concerns being shown regarding Perry or Bachmann.”
“Regardless of what the polls say, Willard is damaged goods in Iowa, and given his lack of presence in the state he clearly knows that.”
Michele Bachmann — The campaign for the Minnesota congresswoman is on a downward spiral in Iowa, but continues to hang on by the thread of smart organization.
“Here we are, only a few weeks removed from a truly impressive performance in Ames, and it is all but forgotten. Michele Bachmann was always going to push against those who want ‘electability’ in their final choice, but now she seems to be pushing against everything and everyone else too. I don’t see a current scenario where she places better than third. … I’ll also predict that if her staff and volunteers don’t do something fairly quick, she’s going to land behind former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum on caucus night. Yes, it has gotten that bad for her.”
Going into the Ames Straw Poll, our panelists were in nearly unanimous agreement that Bachmann was the person to beat. And, since many expected her to walk away from Ames as the front-runner in Iowa, many were expecting that she would continue to gain momentum throughout the fall and into the winter.
The panelists are also firmly grounded in reality and, as such, understood there would be bumps in the campaign — Perry being one of many. But through the rankings and the comments, it was clear that Bachmann was a candidate they believed would continue to pull support as a result of her consistent conservative messaging and her networking of other social conservatives.
While many are at a loss to explain exactly why they have now soured on Bachmann as a front-runner, it has become clear that many no longer view her as being among the top-tier candidates in Iowa. As of this edition, none of the panelists placed her in their top slot. More to the point, less than 15 percent of our group put her in the top three.
“[T]urnout on caucus night is critical and she will have more staff and volunteers making turnout calls than Romney’s people will. Bachmann has started to argue that caucus-goers need not ‘settle,’ meaning that they need not select a moderate candidate because the media believes that person has a better chance against Obama. This is basically a swipe at Romney, but it’s also a way for her to argue that she’s not too conservative. If this argument doesn’t resonate or she continues to fade, then we might see her supporters begin to look elsewhere, such as Cain or Santorum.”
Herman Cain — The Atlanta businessman appears to be a reluctant, but nonetheless bright spot for Republicans as the rest of the nation begins to take notice of him and his supporters begin a revitalization effort in the Hawkeye State.
“The week before the straw poll, I would have said that Herman Cain was a no-go, but now I’m not so sure. I’m seeing some real excitement among those who supported him earlier in the cycle. It’s still not looking like an easy victory for Cain in Iowa, but the expectations are so low that even a third place finish would be a big boost.”
“I think there are a large group of activists who are ‘Anybody But Romney’ voters. They continue to look to unite behind a legitimate conservative contender. Herman Cain has enough current buzz to seize [my] second position.”
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of a Cain resurgence is that many in Iowa already believe they’ve given him an opportunity.
“There is little chance Cain can win Iowa despite the positive publicity he has received as of late, because Iowans have already vetted him and moved on.”
“I’m not convinced that Cain’s strong performance in Florida came at his own hands or by his own merit. It seems to me that those casting straw poll votes wanted to send a message, and they used Cain as their carrier. No doubt some will find that assessment harsh, but I don’t see Cain taking the GOP nomination. The best he can do here in Iowa is play spoiler, but sucking enough votes from others to allow someone like Romney through the gate.”
It is interesting to note that this edition of Power Rankings came at a time following tours of the state by both former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Santorum. Despite that fact, both men were largely ignored by the panelists.
While this is not necessarily unusual when using our last six months of rankings as a measure of what is normal, it still doesn’t bode well for either campaign.
In Iowa, just as in the other early states, some voters continue to remain on the sidelines as they await final, final, final decisions from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. For that reason alone, the field remains in somewhat of a holding pattern that won’t resolve until either Iowa caucus night or definitive answers are given.
Those hurt most by the waiting game are candidates like Santorum and Gingrich, who want to play in Iowa but are having difficulty getting the national attention of pundits and/or donors to launch a solid effort.
Finally, while Iowans have never been completely immune to national discussion, polls and other campaign flap that happens outside of the state’s boundaries, there appears to an abundance of perception being formed in the 2012 season that are at least loosely linked to outside influences. This can also be detrimental to candidates who are not receiving national attention, and those who are relying on their performance here in Iowa to be the largest determining factor on caucus night.
To put it another way, roughly 40 percent of our panelists mentioned Santorum’s campaign. Of that 40 percent, the vast majority (more than 70 percent) noted his national performances, not his grassroots campaigning in Iowa. During the past week, Santorum has been beating the bushes in small Iowa towns and, based on ground accounts, has been making notable headway among supporters.
It’s not shocking that Santorum’s ground game has gone unnoticed by the national media or those contacted for national polls. (For proof, compare the number of shocked Iowa faces to national faces on caucus night 2008 when Huckabee was announced.) It is quite unusual, however, for there to be little acknowledgement and praise among Iowa activists for a candidate who is obviously working hard in the state — especially in an election cycle that remains as open to a shake-up as this one seems to be.