Bill Whalen

Unknowns as High as an Elephant’s Eye

The last poll going into Tuesday night’s vote in Iowa was good news for Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. They’re the top-three finishers, with Santorum the latest “surge” candidate in a field defined by meteoric rises and abrupt descents.

Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann? They’re stuck back in economy class, looking for an upgrade to the front of the plane for the flight to New Hampshire and beyond.

For what it’s worth, the same Des Moines Register poll got it right onDec. 31, 2007: it had Mike Huckabee leading Romney, 32%-26% (actual results: Huckabee 34.36%, Romney 25.19%).

But a word of caution about those numbers: as many as four in ten likely caucus-goers say they might still change their mind.  Add a large turnout with a heavy influx of new voters and we could be in for a long and strange night.

As for what we’ll discover come Wednesday morning:

Proof Positive That Negatives Work. On Dec. 1 and well ahead of his rivals, Gingrich told ABC News, “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.” In the same interview, he added that negative attacks against him were certain to backfire. They didn’t.  45% of all political ads in Iowa during December were anti-Gingrich spots (here’s one, via the Paul campaign); Newt’s Iowa numbers collapsed. Again, we’re reminded why campaigns run negative ads, despite all the media tut-tutting: because they work.

Such a Thing As Too Outside the Beltway? A strong showing for Santorum is a win for traditional all-or-nothing Iowa campaigning that dates back to Jimmy Carter’s surprise emergence in 1976. Santorum got to Iowa early, made it a point to campaign in every county, pretty much ignored the other early-voting states, and bet on the Religious Right to break his way. All of which seems to be working. The intriguing question: did Santorum overplay that card? While going heavy on social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage), only in the closing days did he tweak his message to that of a “consistent conservative” as an alumnus of the House and the Senate with a history of voting “right”. In retrospect, maybe he’d have surged further had he been seen as a more dimensional candidate.

Romney’s Upward Mobility. As the runner-up to Huckabee in 2008, Romney received a little over 30,000 votes. The question: how high can he/does he need to go in what’s expected to be a bigger turnout on Tuesday (if, say, 140,000 Iowans come out, that’s an extra 20,000 voters from 2008). Here’s a breakdown from the 2008:

Huckabee        40,954 34.36%

Romney           30,021 25.19%

Thompson      15,960 13.39%

McCain             15,536 13.03%

Paul                   11,841 9.93%

Giuliani            4,099 3.44%

What this says: assuming Romney loses some of that 2008 following (because: (a) he’s not the same social conservative he was four years ago and (b) those same voters have plenty of options in Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, Perry and Bachmann), there are still 15,000 votes to be had from the McCain/Giuliani faction– and let’s assume they’re interested in (a) a more moderate Republican and (b) electability, which is Romney’s strong suit. Suppose Romney manages to haul in, say, 40,000 votes. That’s 28% of a 140,000 electorate – perhaps enough to carry the day (the lowest-percentage Iowa winner: Bob Dole, with 26% in 1996).

The Ghosts of Texans Past. In each of the last five “open” Republican presidential races (no GOP incumbent in the White House), a Texan has sought the nomination – a testament to the emergence of Texas as a deep-red state. But there’s been a fine line between winning and losing – “don’t mess with Texas”, as opposed to “Texas mess.”  Bush pere et fils each won the GOP nomination. John Connally, former Texas governor, had the opposite experience when he ran in 1980: $11 million spent, all of one delegate.  The same misfortune befell former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (like Connally, a party-switcher) in 1996:  $25 million spent, 10 delegates earned. And Perry’s fate? A weekend article in Politico featured political consultants at their reptilian worst: anonymous finger-pointing, throwing colleagues under the Perry campaign bus.  Perry brought in a Texas contingent for a last-minute push in Iowa, the goal being a third-place finish; he’s on a plane to South Carolina once that voting’s over, bypassing New Hampshire for the state where he kicked off his campaign.

Paul, on the Road to . . . Lake Jackson? Speaking of Texas, that’s where Ron Paul was this past weekend – not in Iowa, not scurrying for votes, but back in his home congressional district (his hometown in Lake Jackson, about an hour’s drive south from Houston). From his controversial foreign policy stances to the novel idea of raising money via online gamers taking part in Dungeoneers, Paul’s campaign is a daily departure from the accepted norm. Conventional wisdom dictates that every Republican candidate will spend the last 48 hours in Iowa in a frenzied scramble for undecideds. Not so with the Paul campaign.

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