Thursday, January 03, 2008

Romney's Iowa Campaign

May 27th, October 14th and November 28th, 2007. Three landmark days for the Romney campaign in Iowa.

From a distant third place in late 2006, Romney's Iowa efforts paid off on May 27th, when his estimated trend passed that of frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, making Romney the leader in Iowa. A campaign between two Northeastern Republicans had tilted from New York to Boston.

Romney held first place for 185 days, along the way picking up a strong win at the Ames straw poll in August. But the peril of becoming the odds on favorite is not getting credit for wins. The straw poll victory was noted, but always with the "as expected" modifier. The peril of the steady front runner is that wins are expected and losses are devastating. Meanwhile Huckabee's narrow win over Sam Brownback for 2nd place was the big news from the straw poll.

Huckabee built on success, and the next turning point for the Romney campaign was October 14th, the day Huckabee passed Giuliani's trend estimate and became the second place contender in Iowa. In the chart, the color changes at that point. Romney held steady in his lead over Huckabee for a while, but as the former Arkansas governor rose in the polls (with Romney steady, neither rising nor falling significantly) the lead evaporated and on November 28th Huckabee's trend crossed Romney's.

Of these three dates, May 27th was according to plan. Romney set out to overtake the national and Iowa frontrunner, and over about six months accomplished that.

What was perhaps underappreciated at the time was October 14th. That was the point at which the Iowa race in the eyes of voters shifted from a Boston-New York rivalry, to a Boston-Little Rock one. The campaigns adjusted earlier, but this was the tipping point for Iowa Republican voters. Now instead of comparing a Massachusetts Governor with a New York Mayor, voters were more likely after October 14 to think in terms of a Southern Governor as the alternative. Rural Iowa voters may have some difficulty telling one Northeastern Republican from another, but comparing one to a rural state Southerner is a somewhat easier task.

Once Huckabee became the primary alternative rather than Giuliani, the terms of the debate changed. This was most evident in the shift of conservative Protestant Christian voters in the state to Huckabee. Such voters may have had a hard time differentiating between the Mormon and the thrice divorced Catholic, but the Mormon vs the Baptist minister was easier to grasp.

The third turning point, November 28th, ended the 185 day reign of Romney in first place. Since then the polls have mostly seen a Huckabee lead, and the trend estimate, at least, sees little change in the small margin. The race remains a choice of Boston vs. Little Rock.

Tonight will determine whose supporters were committed enough to attend a caucus and whose stayed home. Romney's organization and financial advantage may yet pay off there.

But the hidden blessing of November 28th was that it gave Romney the chance to "win" Iowa. Had his lead held up from May 27th until January 3rd, a first place finish would again have been "as expected". Good. Far better than a loss. But not the momentum builder and validation that a candidate hopes for out of Iowa.

November 28th changed that. If Mitt Romney pulls out a victory, however small the margin, he will have "come back" to win, and will get the boost that Iowa can offer to candidates who are not yet national household names. (And remember, Romney still stands in only 3rd place nationally, barely over 15%. He needs what Iowa can do for him.)

In the scenarios of what can happen after tonight, Romney needs the Iowa win to help in New Hampshire against the "risen from the dead" McCain surge. A loss makes the news from now until Tuesday all about the Huckabee's win and McCain's surge-- two things the Romney campaign would not like to carry into New Hampshire.

Until late November, everything had gone according to plan for the Romney campaign. They had built leads in Iowa and New Hampshire and had just moved into first place in South Carolina. While still lagging in national polls, the Romney machine was well poised to sweep three early events and ride momentum into Florida and then Super Tuesday. November 28th changed all that. Now a loss in Iowa threatens the next two states. But paradoxically November 28th also marks the moment Romney got the chance to be a "surprise" winner again.

Which scenario plays out now rests in the hands of Iowa Republican caucus goers.