PUBLISHED at RealClearPolitics.com:
Historically, the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary have received the perception of being, if not president-makers, at least highly reliable launching points for presidential aspirants.
Indeed, these early contests correctly predicted the final choice of nominee five out of seven times for each party. Iowans’ views were not shared by the rest of the country on the Democratic side in 1992 (Tom Harkin won) and 1988 (Dick Gephardt), and on the Republican side in 1988 (Bob Dole) and 1980 (George H.W. Bush). New Hampshire didn’t create a victor on the Democratic side in 1992 (Paul Tsongas) and 1984 (Gary Hart), and on the Republican side in 2000 (John McCain) and 1996 (Pat Buchanan).
And while batting over .700 is impressive, there are strong reasons to question whether these initial matchups are now as important or reliable indicators as they used to be.
Notice is being taken of Mitt Romney’s lead over Rudy Giuliani in these two states. Looking at the trend of Iowa poll averages
from RealClearPolitics.com, two things are clear. Mitt Romney is picking up the majority of the support that John McCain is losing. And Rudy Giuliani’s support dropped in every poll taken after his early June announcement that he would not participate in the Iowa Straw Poll. Romney now shows a commanding 13-point lead in the RCP average with recent polls having an even wider margin. It is not unreasonable to assume that even if Rudy makes a serious effort in Iowa he may not be able to overcome this gap.
In New Hampshire
, the RCP averages show Romney with about a 10 point lead, but leaving out one apparent poll outlier (showing Giuliani up by 1 percent), that number would be closer to 13%. The modest difference between New Hampshire and Iowa polling trends is that while Iowa shows Romney’s lead continuing to widen in recent weeks, in New Hampshire the gap has been fairly steady, with both Romney and Giuliani gaining support from former McCain voters.
Again, I do not assume that Giuliani can close this gap. Indeed, I am far from convinced that he will or should try hard to do so. Certainly, running radio ads about a border fence, as he’s doing in both states, hardly seems like putting your best foot forward, especially since there were some notable GOP congressional casualties last year who ran primarily on immigration.
What is so different this time versus prior election cycles? The race by other (bigger) states to get near the front of the primary season starting line. The benefit historically offered by winning the mid-January contests in Iowa and New Hampshire was the momentum gained in the roughly 6-8 weeks until the next important group of primaries on Super Tuesday in March.
If you roll a ball down a 20-foot hill, it will be going much more slowly at the bottom than if you had rolled it down a 100-foot hill. And that’s exactly what’s being done to the New Hampshire and Iowa momentum by the dramatic moves of Florida, California, Illinois, New York, and others to move their primaries up. Michigan is proposing January 15th, just one day after the currently scheduled date for the Iowa Caucus and a week before New Hampshire’s primary. South Carolina has scheduled its primary for January 19th, again before New Hampshire’s. And just yesterday, Wyoming Republicans announced that they are moving their caucus to January 5th.
New Hampshire and Iowa will respond by moving their contests up, but when the reshuffling has finished the time between the two historically earliest contests and the rest of the pack will have been compressed dramatically. Even if Mitt Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, those victories may not translate into momentum, at least not unless he already has some momentum in other more important states.
Looking at the polling data from some of the other important and probably-early states (are they all probably early now?), Giuliani shows a substantial lead over Romney in South Carolina
, and New Jersey
, and a small lead in Michigan
in the head-to-head race. (Fred Thompson shows good support in Michigan and South Carolina, although my guess is that Thompson’s campaign may already be stalling out beyond recovery.)
As I expect Romney to have very limited ability to turn victories in Iowa and New Hampshire into momentum in these other states in the very short time between primaries, Rudy Giuliani’s apparent strategy of focusing on the larger states and not worrying about Romney’s lead in the presumptive first two contests makes a lot of sense. Today, even with Romney’s clear advantage in Iowa and New Hampshire, the change in the structure of the primary season has made it very difficult to expect that the current betting lines
, having Rudy about 15% higher than Romney to be the eventual nominee, will be wrong.
Putting aside the nuts and bolts of primaries and probabilities, even the perception of a resurgent Romney is a good thing for the GOP and the country. Whether you’re supporting him or not, Romney’s campaign platform is basically one of low taxes and limited government much like Rudy Giuliani’s. We see Senators Obama and Edwards pushing Hillary Clinton to the left by supporting health care socialism and the repeatedly-failed soak-the-rich economic policies of days we remember with little fondness. The debate among the Republican front-runners (“I’m a truer tax cutter than you are!”) will force the candidates to the “fiscal right”, not only focusing the American public’s view on the historic and current value of low tax rates, but further highlighting just how much of Americans’ money each of the Democratic candidates wants to take.
I do not believe that likely Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire will translate into his beating Rudy Giuliani for the Republican presidential nomination but I’m very glad to have him make a real impact on the race.