Sunday, December 25, 2011

Iowa Remains Divided

The Iowa Caucus is imminent: Voting takes place in less than two weeks. Iowans have had plenty of time to rally around a single candidate. They could have united behind the overall Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney. If they found Romney unacceptable, they could have united behind a single Anti-Romney, selecting the one they felt was the strongest of the remaining candidates. In 2008, Iowans did precisely that, and they gave Mike Huckabee a big win over Romney. This time, Iowa is divided.

A group of influential Evangelical leaders met in Iowa in an attempt to decide which candidate they would unite behind; they ultimately did not endorse a single candidate. The picture was different four years ago when Huckabee was the obvious choice. Back then, Romney had been leading the polls in Iowa for months--then Huckabee went from a low-polling candidate (like Rick Santorum has been this year) to a mid-level candidate in October. Once Huckabee was a realistic choice, his numbers exploded in the "Huckaboom," launching him past Romney by the end of November. It became a two-man race in Iowa, and Huckabee's lead expanded to double-digits in some polls by mid-December.

In mid-December 2007, Romney unleashed a torrent of attack ads against Huckabee--much as he did against Newt Gingrich in mid-December 2011. Huckabee's numbers dipped, and Romney retook a slight lead in some polls by the end of December. But unlike Gingrich, Huckabee never fell too far, staying around 30%. He recovered, the polls favored him again, and he won Iowa 34% to Romney's 25%.

This time around, Gingrich looked to become the Anti-Romney, but his poll numbers fell from an average of 30 to an average of 15, placing him behind both Romney and Ron Paul. Conservative, mostly Evangelical Anti-Romney forces in Iowa have gravitated to a number of other candidates: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum are all polling around 10 points each. If the voters supporting those three plus Gingrich concentrated around one candidate, as they did with Huckabee in 2008, Romney would be finished in Iowa.

Why the disunity? As with the Republican field in general, each of the Anti-Romney candidates is flawed. And each one appeals to a different segment of the Evangelical Anti-Romney bloc. For those who care little about electability, Bachmann is a pure policy conservative. For those who demand an established, well-funded, experienced candidate, Perry is the obvious choice. For those spooked by electability concerns and bad debate performances from the previous two, Santorum makes sense. For those who think Santorum just can't win because he's a low-polling nobody, Gingrich is the one with the best chance of out-polling Romney. But Gingrich is ill-suited to play the role of an Evangelical conservative, aside from the fact that his name is not Mitt Romney.

What if Huckabee had run for president again this year? Probably all four of those groups would have lined up behind him, and winning Iowa would have been a breeze. But Huckabee didn't run, so Iowa is divided. Ordinarily, low-polling candidates will lose all support at the very end, as voters strategically coalesce. This year, however, the four Anti-Romneys are each polling just high enough to survive.