Why I’m not worried about the Paul/Santorum “surge” in Iowa

There are any number of polls out right now which show either Romney (coasting), Ron Paul (surging), or Rick Santorum (surging) “leading” in Iowa, with Gingrich “fading.”  With the GOP’s Iowa Caucus happening next Tuesday, those poll numbers have got some conservatives panicking over the thought of any of the three “top pollers” (especially Ron Paul) being our eventual nominee.  Michael Barone, writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, reminds us that Iowa’s track record on picking the eventual GOP nominee isn’t very good:

But the Iowa Republican caucuses have a poor record in choosing their party’s nominees. In the five presidential nominating cycles with active Iowa Republican caucus competition, the Hawkeye State has voted for the eventual Republican nominee only twice—in 1996 for Bob Dole, in 2000 for George W. Bush—and only once was the Iowa winner elected president.

The state’s Democrats have a better record, producing a surprise victory for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and a big victory for eventual nominee Walter Mondale in 1984. They faltered in 1988 as Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon came in ahead of nominee Michael Dukakis, and in 1992, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin swept the field. But they gave big victories to Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

One reason Iowa Democrats have been better prognosticators than Iowa Republicans is that more people participate in their caucuses. About twice as many people showed up for the Democratic precinct caucuses as for their Republican counterparts in 2008. In a state of three million people, a bare 119,000 Republicans showed up for the caucuses. Some 60% of them identified as evangelical or born-again Christians—a far higher percentage than in any presidential contest in any large non-Southern state that year.

The small, skewed turnout resulted in a victory for Mike Huckabee, who ran ads identifying himself as a “Christian leader.” In later contests in other states, Mr. Huckabee, despite sparkling performances in debate and impressive command of popular culture, failed to win more than 15% of the support of those who did not identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and he lost to John McCain.

Other early voting states have a better record than Iowa of picking Republican winners. New Hampshire primary voters gave victories to eventual nominees Richard Nixon in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. South Carolina, whose early contest was concocted by Bush operative Lee Atwater in 1988, has done even better, backing the senior Bush in 1988 and 1992 primaries, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008. In both states the primary electorate is a much larger and more representative sample of the Republican voting population than in Iowa.

As it stands now, Romney leads in the polls in New Hampshire by an average of almost 20%. It’s really not even close there for any other GOP candidate. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, at this stage in the game Newt Gingrich is in the lead in the polls by an average of 16%. So if Barone’s scenario plays out, one of those two states may turn out to be bellwethers for us in the coming months and either Romney or Gingrich will be our eventual nominee.

BTW, it’s not exactly surprising but worth noting anyway that the make-up of Ron Paul’s supporters are not exactly your average run of the mill Republican. In fact, many aren’t Republicans at all:

Given Paul’s views on the Fed, the gold standard and social issues, not to mention his isolationist foreign policy, the polls have left some politicos wondering whether Republican voters have somehow swerved off the rails. But there’s another question that should be asked first: Who are Ron Paul’s supporters? Are they, in fact, Republicans?

In an analysis accompanying his most recent survey in Iowa, pollster Scott Rasmussen noted, “Romney leads, with Gingrich in second, among those who consider themselves Republicans. Paul has a wide lead among non-Republicans who are likely to participate in the caucus.”

The same is true in New Hampshire. A poll released Monday by the Boston Globe and the University of New Hampshire shows Paul leading among Democrats and independents who plan to vote in the January 10 primary. But among Republicans, Paul is a distant third — 33 points behind leader Mitt Romney.

In South Carolina, “Paul’s support is higher among those who usually don’t vote in GOP primary elections,” notes David Woodard, who runs the Palmetto Poll at Clemson University.

In a hotly-contested Republican race, it appears that only about half of Paul’s supporters are Republicans. In Iowa, according to Rasmussen, just 51 percent of Paul supporters consider themselves Republicans. In New Hampshire, the number is 56 percent, according to Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire poll.

The same New Hampshire survey found that 87 percent of the people who support Romney consider themselves Republicans. For Newt Gingrich, it’s 85 percent.

So who is supporting Paul? In New Hampshire, Paul is the choice of just 13 percent of Republicans, according to the new poll, while he is the favorite of 36 percent of independents and 26 percent of Democrats who intend to vote in the primary. Paul leads in both non-Republican categories.

“Paul is doing the best job of getting those people who aren’t really Republicans but say they’re going to vote in the Republican primary,” explains Smith. Among that group are libertarians, dissatisfied independents and Democrats who are “trying to throw a monkey wrench in the campaign by voting for someone who is more philosophically extreme,” says Smith.

And with the way you can switch parties in the Iowa caucus virtually on a dime, the “first in the nation” state may very well be a primetime target next week for exactly the type of “mischief” voters described by the Washington Examiner’s Byron York above. As CNN notes (bolded emphasis added by me):

While Iowa Democrats famously caucus by literally standing up for their chosen candidate, the Hawkeye State’s GOP holds secret ballot votes.

Here’s how the unique process will work: On caucus night, would-be voters will gather in 809 locations across the state — school gyms, churches and auditoriums of all shapes. To participate, each person must be a registered Republican who will turn 18 by the general election on November 6.

But, in a closely watched twist, voters can switch party affiliation at the caucus and register as Republicans that night.

“From a process standpoint, it’s a nightmare,” said Dallas County Republican chairman Mike Elam, “but I think it’s a good thing. People can decide they want to be involved up to the very last minute.”

Republicans this year hope that ability leads to a surge of registrations from disgruntled Democrats and independents. But the practice also allows potential cross-party sabotage, where members of one party can participate in a rival caucus in order to vote for the candidate they see as the weakest potential opponent.

In other words, if you wake up next Wednesday morning to see/read the media hype about Ron Paul’s win (if indeed it happens), don’t be surprised. And don’t panic.

With that said, and with months of campaigning and politicking and researching in the background, where do you stand on the candidates at this point?

Iowa Caucus 411:

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