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Romney with Solid Lead in New Hampshire

Iowa is the best evidence we now have of how effective a targeted negative ad campaign can be. Gingrich had a double-digit lead in Iowa less than a month ago, and finished 4th, with less than half he support he had had earlier. One of the main spurs for Romney to wrap up the nomination early rather than late is to avoid  being in a contentious nomination fight while the Obama campaign tries to “define” Romney for the American public with attacks ads.

Ron Paul is almost certain to stay in the race for a long time, but if none of the other contenders catches fire and starts winning in some states, their contributions and support levels will dry up.  The hope for Gingrich or Santorum is that they soon become the clear conservative alternative to Romney. At the moment, each seems to be holding the other back from assuming that mantle, allowing Romney to stay on top.

In South Carolina, a state where Republican voters are more conservative by and large than in New Hampshire, but less so than in Iowa, there are two surveys out -- the first in almost three weeks in the Palmetto State. Rasmussen gives Romney a 3-point lead over Santorum with Gingrich 6 points further back, and CNN/Time shows Romney with a much bigger lead -- about 2 to 1 over both Santorum and Romney.  The CNN/Time survey has a smaller sample size.

If Romney wins decisively in New Hampshire, and then again in South Carolina, even narrowly, he would be the heavy favorite to complete a first month sweep by winning Florida on January 31.  The last Florida poll was taken in mid-December and showed Romney with a one-point lead over Gingrich. It is likely that the next Florida survey will have Romney with a bigger lead over either Gingrich or Santorum.

The national polls of GOP voters have also been quite volatile in recent weeks. Gingrich opened up a 15-point lead over Romney in early December, but now has lost about half of his support, though his numbers have stabilized a bit in the last week. Romney leads the national surveys by 8 points, and his support level has begun to creep north of the 25% level that some critics have argued was his ceiling. Santorum has jumped in the national surveys, into second place in Rasmussen, with Gingrich in second in Gallup’s tracking poll.

Romney won just under 25% of the vote in Iowa, but near half of those who voted believed he was the most electable candidate versus Barack Obama in November. With the economy appearing to be turning up a bit, Obama’s chances for re-election look a bit brighter than they did three months ago. This might make some of the president’s angry class warfare rhetoric less necessary, and some of his “to hell with Congress” approach to governing risker. If the economy creates 200,000 jobs a month, the president’s “make or break moment for the middle class” mantra (obviously poll tested) will be less compelling.

On the GOP side, Mitt Romney, who has run a cautious, general election style campaign, is in good shape at the moment. This is not to saythat there might not be one more major shift in the race. A single candidate could emerge to do battle with Romney, most likely Santorum, who might consolidate conservative opposition to Romney. This is possible, I think, but not likely. The surge for Santorum post-Iowa has been decent sized, but still leaves room between him and Romney. The longer Gingrich sticks around, the less chance there is for Santorum to get his one-on-one opportunity.

Gingrich may campaign against Romney, but his presence in the race is helping Romney stay in the lead.