Conclusion: The Iowa caucuses begin tonight at 7pm, with results expected by 11pm. If Romney gets over 25%, it could be the knockout blow he needs to win the nomination. Both Paul and Santorum have had a consistent presence in Iowa that could lead to an upside surprise for either.
Today marks the beginning of the Republican nominating process with the Iowa caucuses. They key question to consider heading into today is whether Mitt Romney can land a knock-out blow to his competitors by winning in Iowa with a large enough margin to discourage the other candidates from continuing and their supporters from continuing to fund them.
As background, the Republican caucuses in Iowa are open to any Republican registered in Iowa who will be 18 by the general election on November 6th, 2012. The caucuses begin at 7pm at designated meeting places in Iowa’s 1,774 districts with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and then an election of officers to run the meeting. Representatives from each campaign will then give a brief speech for their candidate. Following the speeches, caucus-goers will write the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper and the votes will then be counted. The caucus will then report the results to the room and then by phone to the Iowa Republican party. Typically, the candidates that are more conservative, and those with more passionate supporters, do well in the caucus format.
The success of the Iowa caucuses in predicting the eventual Republican nominee is somewhat mixed. In 1996, Bob Dole defeated Pat Buchanan 26% to 23% and went on to claim the nomination. In 1988, Dole also won Iowa, but 4thplace Iowa finisher, George Bush, went on to win the nomination. Bush was on the other side of the equation in 1980 when he bested his eventual running mate, Ronald Reagan, in Iowa by winning 31.6% versus Reagan’s 29.5%. Most recently, in 2008, Mike Huckabee won Iowa with 34.4% and eventual nominee John McCain finished fourth with 13%. History suggests a cautionary tale as to reading too much into the Iowa caucuses.
Based on the most recent polls, which we’ve highlighted in the table below, the race continues to look very tight.
The takeaway from looking at the five most recent polls is that Romney appears to hold a lead, albeit a very marginal one, over Ron Paul. Interestingly, Rick Santorum is now running a close third. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich has fallen back to fourth in all of the recent polls, and can likely be expected to fall further by the end of the day as the polling trends are usually a decent leading indicator for actual results.
The ultimate determinant of victory today will be the undecided caucus goers. According to the recent Des Moines register poll, 49% of likely caucus-goers said their mind was still not made up. Reasonably, as my colleague Jeremy Pink noted this morning, face time in Iowa over the last year may turn out to be a key factor to get the vote of the undecided caucus-goers. On that front, of the three front runners Santorum ranks the best with more than 200 events in Iowa over the last year, followed by Paul at more than 100 events, and Romney trailing both with only 19 days of campaign time in Iowa.
On a national level, if there is a story over the past few weeks it is the rapid decline of Newt Gingrich. In the middle of December, after a couple of positive debate appearances, Gingrich was leading all Republican candidates with 35% in the Real Clear Politics poll aggregate. At that point, Romney was a distant second at 22.3%.
In the last couple of weeks, since Gingrich peaked, the Romney camp, or at least PACs advocating for Romney, have dropped the proverbial mitts in terms of going after Gingrich and more broadly defining him to the electorate. The best example is the attached video advertisement that highlights the fact that Gingrich isn’t overly conservative and likely has too much baggage to beat Obama.
In recent days, Gingrich has tried to fight back, most notably by outright calling Romney a liar, but it appears to be too little, too late. On InTrade, Gingrich’s probability of winning in Iowa is at 0.5% and his probability of winning the Republican nomination is at 5%. Conversely, Romney is registering a 52% probability of winning in Iowa and 80.2% of winning the Republican nomination, which is an all-time high for Romney. As we know from watching far too many hockey games, dropping the mitts can be a momentum changer and this seems to be the case in Romney versus Gingrich.
Daryl G. Jones
Director of Research