I spent some time on the phone this morning with pollsters, operatives an activists in Iowa, trying to gain a read on what is going on. National Journal posited that “there have been hints all along that [Newt] Gingrich’s support was soft. Pollsters at the University of Iowa, which conducted a week-long survey of 277 likely caucus-goers that ended last week, began to detect a Gingrich slide just after [Herman] Cain dropped out of the race. Gingrich still led the field, taking 30 percent to Romney’s 20 percent, but his support slipped dramatically in the final days during which the poll was conducted. ‘Our results show that his support may be starting to slide, as it has with previous frontrunners,’ Hawkeye Professor Frederick Boehmke told Reuters as the poll came out.” Is that right, and if so, who will benefit?
For starters, forget the national polls. I’ve said that before but it is especially true now, as Iowa voters ramp up their attention, increase their debate watching and begin to gather every scrap of information about the candidates that they can. These are high-information voters, who in focus groups and polling have shown a detailed understanding of the race. They follow things like the National Review’s anybody-but-Newt endorsement. They can point to inconsistencies in a candidate’s debate spiels. In pollster terms, the “information flow” to Iowa voters and everyone else is very different.
What is also clear is that the information flow on Gingrich is much more negative than it was two weeks ago. A couple of weeks ago, voters would say “smart” or “good in debates,” when asked what things they associate with Gingrich. Now, more frequently they will say “arrogant” or “D.C. insider” or “erratic.” That is because in debates, ads and free media, there has been a ton of negative information about Gingrich dropped on them in a short period of time. As a result, there is an uptick in disenchantment with Gingrich.
Because there is more attention and more media focus right now on Gingrich than there was when Cain was undergoing scrutiny, the change in opinion about Gingrich may be faster, some insiders think. That doesn’t mean his support will vanish. And he should still do very well in Iowa (he continues to draw big crowds). However, those whom I talked to agree that he has peaked and, as one put it, “started to go in the other direction.”
There are, according to those I spoke with, two tiers: Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), in the top, and everyone else in the bottom. If Gingrich falters, there is an argument that several candidates may scoop up the votes. There are those who will throw in the towel and settle for Romney. There are those who will say they don’t care about polls and pick someone from the bottom tier. And there are those votes that will go to Ron Paul.
Those I spoke to attribute much of the damage to Gingrich to the “prevalent, punchy” ads from Ron Paul, as an aide in a rival camp described them. Every person I spoke with agreed that it is very possible for Ron Paul to win in Iowa, in large part because of the intensity of his supporters.
With regard to turnout, the firing of Gingrich’s political director who made “Mormon cult” remarks was not fully appreciated outside of Iowa. Operatives and activists there describe the Gingrich operation as “chaotic” or “erratic.” An adviser for an opposing campaign says that’s a precursor to what a Gingrich White House would be like.
Those polling in Iowa and outside the state do not think the race will be “frozen” over the holidays. Interest is so high that to some degree the information flow and public discussion will increase, they believe. One operative said, “The TV will be on. And there will be more dinner-table conversation and dinner tables.”
There is definite gender gap at work in Iowa. Gingrich and Paul voters are heavily men, while Romney is picking up many female supporters. That in part explains why Ann Romney is in the state holding GOP women’s events. It is also a challenge for the Romney camp since caucus voters have historically been heavily male.
Do endorsements matter? One operative says that they do only if the endorsements speak to a broader narrative. For example, if the Des Moines Register were to do a endorsement making the case that these are serious times and Gingrich’s behavior is too much of distraction, that would play into the current information flow and help the not-Newt candidates.
As for the second tier of candidates, they should be encouraged. First, in Iowa, electability is a factor but usually not the critical one. (One activist joked that in Iowa voters say, “We’ll tell you who’s electable.”) If voters fall away from Gingrich, they could very well go to one of the non-front-runners. And indeed, you see some upward drift for Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)
It would be wrong to say that Gingrich’s support has cratered or that he won’t do well in Iowa. He still has enthusiastic followers. But it is the consensus that his poor organization, his lack of TV ads and his own antics (one Romney supporter called Gingrich’s attack on Romney’s capitalism a “near fatal” error) will act as a drag on his support. In a close race that can be the difference between winning and losing.