Iowa Report: After Ames
So, everyone's asking me these days, "Brian, what the heck is going on in Iowa? How can Mitt Romney possibly be leading? How can Rudy Giuliani be doing so badly, when he is doing so well everywhere else? What about Fred Thompson? Is it going to rain tomorrow, or is it ok to get my car washed?"
Well, I can answer all of the above except the question on the weather. Here in Iowa, as the saying goes, if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change. The same holds true with politics.
As of this writing, and according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, Mitt Romney is leading here in Iowa with 27.2%, followed by Giuliani with 14.5%, Fred Thompson at 12.3%, McCain at 8.7%, and Huckabee at 5%. While those are interesting numbers, they don't tell the whole story.
Mike Huckabee is clearly a man on the rise here in Iowa. According to Zogby, he has risen 6% since May of 2007. This "bump" is mainly because of his surprising performance in the Iowa Straw Poll earlier this month. I interviewed Governor Huckabee a week prior to the Straw Poll, and I can tell you that he had the crowd eating out of his hand...including me. He's funny when he wants to be, he's smart and articulate, and he certainly is promoting the conservative message, if that's what you like. He's very engaging one-on-one, too, as I found out during the interview.
Now, I mention all those traits because, to Iowans, that's important. We want to be able to get up close and personal to talk with the candidates, engage them in discussion, and pick their brains, so to speak. Huckabee's campaign provided the perfect chance for people to do just that, and that's the major reason, I'd have to say, for his second-place finish at the Straw Poll. We don't get that close-up to the likes of Rudy or Mitt, I can tell you that.
Now, there were certainly other reasons why Huckabee did well in the Straw Poll. There are some that say he only did well because he had help from the Fair Tax people. That's certainly possible, but I'd have to say that if anything, he simply leveled the playing field. I needn't remind anyone that Huckabee didn't have the money to hire buses and pay for a boat-load of Straw Poll tickets, as other candidates did. You can downplay his finish all you want, but I think it demonstrates a man who is building momentum. Will he win the Caucuses? It's hard to say, but I'd have to say no. Still, a lot can happen between now and January, and Huckabee has shown he can organize, so don't count him out.
I shouldn't have to tell anyone the reason for John McCain's recent slide but, just in case I do, it's illegal immigration. It's not just a problem here in Iowa, of course, but nationally. How McCain has handled the entire issue over the past few months did not go unnoticed by Iowans fed up with a rising illegal immigrant population and the rising crime and stress on services that comes with it. And if you look at the trend, his dive began just as this bill was being debated in the Senate.
There are other issues with McCain that has Iowans backing away from him, particularly his role in McCain-Feingold and his participation in the "Gang of Fourteen". About the only plus that McCain has here in Iowa (and the media is misreporting it) is his stand on Iraq. Iowans don't want to lose the war. Yeah, there are a number of people who are restless, who think it's time to begin handing over things to the Iraqis, but very few of them would accept an actual defeat. And what the Democrats are pushing for is just that. McCain, to his credit, is campaigning firmly against that.
Fred Thompson is a different animal here in Iowa, in that he's polling fairly well for a non-candidate right now. I'll be honest, I know quite a few Republicans and conservatives here in the state, but when I ask them what they think of "FRED!" all I get is a glazed look in their eyes, like I just asked them what they thought of purple jelly beans. They know who he is, for the most part, but other than that, they know very little about him.
Nevertheless, he is, as I said, polling fairly well. And if he can pull in those kind of numbers now, before he's announced and before people really know who he is and what he believes, he could catapult to the lead rather quickly. Unless, of course, the recent media hit-jobs take their toll on him before he can announce. I would also point out that Iowa is an "organization" state, meaning candidates who have a well-oiled machine and a solid presence in the state tend to do better than those who don't. Fred lacks both of these at the moment, and his recent campaign shakeups lead me to believe he might not gain the traction he needs here in Iowa.
Rudy has been all over the map in poll numbers here in Iowa. In January, he was at around 19%. Two months later, he was at 25%. Two more months later, he was down to 18%. And now he is where he is, at 14%. I think Fred Thompson being included in these polls have taken a toll on his overall numbers, so read into it what you will.
I don't think Iowans know quite what to make of Rudy right now. We know him from New York City, we know he was the Mayor, we know of his record in the aftermath of 9/11, and we know how he turned that metropolis around. He is a person that espouses traditional conservatism when it suits him to do so, but there are a number of glaring flaws in his beliefs to some Iowans, most notable being his stance on abortion.
I also think that part of the reason why Rudy is slipping here in Iowa has to do with his non-participation in the Straw Poll (I think this also applies to McCain, to a certain extent, because he also snubbed us in 2000). Iowans are pretty forgiving, but one thing they won't forgive is being snubbed or ignored. Reagan found that out in 1980, when he didn't devote much of his campaign time here before the caucuses (George Bush went on to win the caucuses, and Reagan admitted in his memoirs that he "took it for granted" that he would win, because of his past history in the state).
Finally, let's look at Mitt Romney. I have to say, this is the most puzzling one of them all. Mitt has spent a lot of time and money here in the state, he's organized (see my comment earlier about Fred Thompson), he's well-financed, and he's certainly talking the conservative talk. That accounts for his current numbers, which brings me to the puzzling part of his campaign. He's leading here in Iowa by double-digits, but nationally he's in third place, behind Rudy and Fred.
The problem here for Mitt is the old "flip-flopper" charge. Then there's the question of his religion. It's a big deal to a lot of people, but I don't think it's that big of a deal with people here in Iowa. We have quite a bit of religious diversity in the state, so I think it's more important that he has a religion at all, and actually believes in it, rather than what religion it is.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, the Iowa Caucuses are a political eternity away, and the numbers these guys have now won't necessarily be what they end up with. There are a number of things that could happen between now and then to change everything, most notably an announcement by Fred Thompson. If/when he announces, it has the potential to really shake things up, but we don't know if such a shake-up would be a lasting one or if it's an actual shake-up at all, and not some media-driven perception of one. And how will his entry affect lower-tier candidates like Huckabee? How will it affect top-tier candidates like Rudy or McCain? These are questions we'll just have to wait and see on, but right now, if the caucuses were held today, it's clear that Mitt Romney wins in a walk. Ask me again in another month and, like Iowa's weather, I may have changed.