Tuesday, November 13, 2007

State v. Nation as Mitt leads (IA&NH) , Fred falters

The Republican race has had something for everyone this year. Front runners have faltered (McCain, remember, was the widely declared "front runner" until early spring, though he trailed Giuliani in the vast majority of national polls.) The puzzle of Giuliani's national lead continues to confound explanation in a party of social conservatives. Despite the most visible pre-primary season in history, the leader in IA and NH, Romney, remains less known nationally. The reluctant actor waited in the wings and perhaps missed his scene, certainly entering after his peak. And just to round things out there is an Arkansas governor from Hope who is beginning to be taken seriously and a Texas congressman whose internet strength is disproportionate to his polls.

(A technical note: the blue line in the figures is our standard trend estimator. The red line is more sensitive to recent change, but also less reliable because it can respond to "noise" in the data rather than real changes in trend. It is great for speculation to consider the red line, but safer for prediction to rely on the blue line, which has a better track record over the long run.)

The single most important feature for the Republican race is the discrepancy between state polls in IA and NH and the national polls. Nationally, Giuliani continues to hold a significant lead of nearly 2:1 over his nearest rivals. But in the initial states, Romney has established his own 2:1 lead in IA and a smaller 8 point lead in NH, while Giuliani struggles in IA and has remained basically flat in NH. This sets up Romney to run a classic momentum campaign based on two early successes to carry him to national prominence and through the second round of pre-February 5th primaries and caucuses.

The Iowa data in the top chart shows Romney's early success there, reaching 20% by April 1, when his national support was a modest 8%. Romney has now built his support to nearly 29% in Iowa, a significant lead over his rivals there, though not enough to dominate the race. Meanwhile he is at less than half that (12%) nationally.

Romney demonstrated his organizational strength by winning the Iowa straw poll back in August. But that story also demonstrated a potential problem for him. The straw poll win would have been news to many Republican primary voters outside of Iowa, where Romney still needs to build his visibility and support. But the press corps (and pollsters) strongly discounted his win as "expected", and focused instead on the narrow second place finish of Mike Huckabee, well behind first place. This seems to be the danger for Romney in January. He has carefully built a strong Iowa presence and support and if the election were held today would probably win (you do believe these polls, right?). That would be big news to lots of voters, and should dominate the headlines. But Romney's lead in IA has become conventional wisdom among reporters and a win is likely to be treated as the straw poll win-- news, but not surprising. The surprising second place finisher would be Huckabee, based on current polls, and that would likely be the bigger story from Iowa.

The rise of Mike Huckabee in Iowa is correctly seen as a big polling story. With limited money Huckabee has climbed into second place in the Iowa polls, and currently enjoys the sharpest upward trajectory of any Republican candidate there. While still well behind Romney, a Huckabee defeat of both Giuliani and Thompson would be legitimate "big news", and could propel the former Arkansas governor to the kind of national momentum he must have to compete after Iowa. His current trajectory is getting him noticed more, and his second place standing probably deserves even more attention than it is currently getting. Coupled with Thompson's failures, Huckabee's ascent could be come a major asset.

The other bit of news from Iowa is the failure of the Thompson campaign to launch. For all the high expectations built up in the pre-campaign campaign of Thompson, Iowa voters have failed to respond. The trend has even taken a bit of a turn down in recent weeks. At only about 12% support, Thompson trails Huckabee and Giuliani.

And the picture only gets worse for Thompson in New Hampshire where his trajectory looks like a failed rocket launch, now at less than 5% support.

It is debatable whether Giuliani, as national leader in the polls (see below) can survive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. It seems even more unlikely that Thompson, who is falling nationally as well, can survive two poor early finishes.

This morning's news is that Thompson will receive the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee, a potentially important boost to his campaign. The organizational strength of Right to Life organizations could be a significant advantage, and might help Thompson secure the status of "choice of social conservatives". However a consensus candidate of social conservatives has yet to emerge, as demonstrated by the scattered endorsements we saw last week. If Thompson is to secure that standing it will come despite his standing in the polls, rather than because of it. Certainly the fear of other Republicans that Thompson would be the late arrival who swept all before him as not materialized.

And then there is John McCain, who has been all but written off by analysts, including me. Yesterday's news that McCain may actually borrow money to finance his campaign through the early caucuses is further evidence that the analysis is not wrong, at least in an organizational sense. McCain's campaign not only lost most of its staff, it has failed to raise money and is back to the days of the bus. Voters, however, haven't entirely gotten that message. McCain's long decline in the polls halted in the third quarter and has made a small gain nationally. A similar rebound may also have occurred in New Hampshire (but only in the more sensitive red estimator.) Still, at 15% there, McCain would be a distant third place, hardly a strong foundation to relaunch a campaign despite previous success in NH. And in Iowa, never his strong suit, McCain is at a dismal 7%, despite his line that he "drinks a cup of ethanol before breakfast every day".

The contrast between Giuliani as national poll leader, while Romney dominates in the first two states, and a possible late emergence of a relative unknown in Huckabee, sets the stage for a candidate to "emerge" from Iowa and New Hampshire. The Giuliani campaign still banks on a "firewall" in Florida and a great February 5th to maintain his campaign, and some chance that a convincing 2nd place in New Hampshire will keep him strongly in the game. For Thompson, South Carolina looks to be his best bet, though he is currently only tied with Giuliani for first place there, and is declining there as well. (A SC win for Giuliani would be huge, of course.) And Romney has had two good a two mediocre polls in SC recently, leaving it unclear if he is moving up there or not. McCain still needs a miracle. But Huckabee has moved in Iowa strongly and a little bit in New Hampshire. Elsewhere he will live or die based on those two states.

As a spectator sport, the Republican race this year has something for everyone, and is vastly entertaining. I can't wait to see what happens next.