Pollsters rained an impressive 10,000-plus phone calls on Iowa in the past week to try and understand how Hawkeye state Republicans will decide the first electoral event in the 2012 cycle. What do we know? Here are five key takeaways from the new surveys.
In a national Post-ABC poll taken in November, Mitt Romney bested Newt Gingrich by a 33 to 5 percent margin among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents on who would be the strongest candidate to take on President Obama in 2012. Gingrich now rivals or beats Romney in Iowa on this measure – by five points in the Post-ABC poll and two points in the CBS-New York Times survey, both released Tuesday (Romney continued to hold an edge in a slightly earlier Des Moines Register poll). Fully 43 percent name Gingrich as the candidate with the best experience to be president in the Post-ABC Iowa poll, more than double that of any other candidate.
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) trails Gingrich in all the latest polls by between 7 and 15 percentage points, but Post-ABC and NBC-Marist (pdf) polls find his supporters are extraordinarily committed. Half of Paul backers in the Post-ABC poll say they’ll definitely support him, compared with fewer than four in 10 of Gingrich supporters; and 53 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers who chose Paul in the NBC poll support him strongly; 43 percent of Gingrich backers do so strongly, 38 percent for Romney.
Paul also has a ground-game edge: More than three quarters of likely Iowa caucus-goers in the CBS-NYT poll report being contacted by Ron Paul’s campaign, twice as many as were contacted by Gingrich and the highest of any candidate in the field. The Iowa caucus, unlike traditional primaries, will put special pressure on campaign organizations to get out their supporters within a short time-frame on the night of Jan. 3. Paul has a clear leg-up on this measure. (Note: the Post-ABC poll found substantially smaller numbers reporting contact from a campaign representative by phone or in person, possibly indicating that much of Paul’s advantage is through direct mail or other methods).
3. Tea party fervor to play a big role – More than three quarters of likely caucus-goers are supportive of the tea party movement in the Post-ABC poll, with more than a third identifying as strong tea party backers. Gingrich wins around 40 percent support among this group in Post-ABC and NBC-Marist polls, more than twice the level of any other candidate. This group has switched from candidate to candidate in national polls, but they are highly motivated and whoever they eventually back will be in a great position to win.
Nearly half (48 percent) of likely Iowa caucus-goers in early November said they would rule out a candidate who had thrice been married and had extramarital affairs, according to a Bloomberg poll. One month later, a scant 16 percent say Gingrich’s marital history would be a major reason to oppose him. What gives? One possible reason is that the issue hasn’t emerged prominently on the campaign trail, partly because none of Gingrich’s competitors has taken him to task for his marital history. But while Gingrich is seen as the best candidate (or ties for the best) across a host of attributes, he trails on being seen as the most honest and trustworthy candidate in the Post-ABC poll.
Nearly half of Iowa caucus-goers in the CBS-NYT poll say it’s more important that a candidate with the best chance to defeat than one they agree with on most issues. That’s a stark contrast from a national Post-ABC poll in October finding Republicans and GOP-leaning independents prioritizing issues over electability by more than three to one. As noted above, the electability argument used to work in Romney’s favor, but Gingrich now matches him in this area.