Mitt Romney and early primary momentum

PUBLISHED at 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, 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, Florida, California, 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.
  • copp
    Comment from: copp
    08/31/07 @ 09:02:46 am

    You are leaving one thing out. Romney is leading in the two states he concentrated on for a reason. People like him. You are assuming that he will continue to concentrate on those two states. But he won't. He will now concentrate on the next big states. And the assumption has to be that the Americans living in those states are not too diffferent than the Americans who now know him best (Iowans and New Hampshirites). Get it?

  • Joe Harrington
    Comment from: Joe Harrington
    08/31/07 @ 12:09:35 pm

    I now prefer Romney over Guiliani for one reason: Guiliani took a cheap shot for red-meat political points at Ron Paul to try to make Paul look like a wacko and sideline his serious points about limited government. I won't forgive him for that. On all other areas, I view Romney and Guiliani as equivalent.

  • susan boyer
    Comment from: susan boyer
    09/01/07 @ 10:57:48 am

    Ross, I think your analysis is flawed. Rudy will not be the nominee. Conservatives are the mainstay of the GOP primary system and why would they go with Rudy when there are other good choices that are socially conservative? It will be Romney (the more folks see the more they like him) or Thompson, or maybe even a combo ticket of both. Hillary's negatives are higher than the polls indicate and Obama is not qualified to be President with his lack of meaningful experience. While most pundits think it is late for Thompson or even Romney to take off they are wrong (as they often are). The general electorate isn't paying attention and won't for a while. Primary voters don't decide who to support based on opinions of Washington pundits. Fred scares the lib media (and Dems-the same) and they will beat up on him viciously when he gets in and that will bring lots of conservative support to his side. Watch.... Susan Boyer

  • Comment from: Rossputin
    09/01/07 @ 02:44:26 pm

    Hi Sue, I understand your analysis and you certainly have a valid point. However, I don't think Romney or Fred have a chance versus Rudy in NY, CA, NJ, or FL, and I don't see how someone else gets the nomination without those states. Ross

  • bill
    Comment from: bill
    09/01/07 @ 05:58:26 pm

    Romney is building his name recognition as he's the only top tier candidate not considered a celebrity star. He's doing it the right way with a superior ground organization and spending money building sizable leads in the early primary states. Should he win Iowa and NH and I believe Nevada is an early voting state he'll build tremendous momentum in big states, he's been slowly rising in since the Iowa Straw Poll. Those Giuliani leads could dissipate overnight as Rudy is a cultural liberal along the lines of "Wild" Bill Weld. The more people get to know Romney the more they'll love him......positive, energetic, good looking, articulate, bright, self made successful, ideal family, and albeit recent campaigning on solid social/economic, and defense conservatism playing well to the GOP base. He's running as Ronald Reagan--and he's got my support and vote.

  • Comment from: Rossputin
    09/01/07 @ 06:06:38 pm

    Let me be VERY clear: I'm not anti-Romney although I have plenty of questions about him. At this point, it's clear to me that I like Giuliani better, but if Romney were the nominee (or Thompson, but not McCain), I'd work hard to help him. I agree that Romney comes across as very likable and I agree that as people get to know him better, his numbers will probably rise. I'm just skeptical that he can pull it off, in no small part because (whether we like it or not that it's an issue) he's Mormon. By the way, the Nevada primary will be "explained away" if Romney wins it, and there's a good chance he will, because there are a lot of Mormon's there. At the end of the day, the GOP MUST not nominate someone who is not likely to win Ohio. I don't know how Romney would look in Ohio yet, but it's an absolute must. The reason I think Rudy is a stronger candidate, at least right now, is that he can put Pennsylvania in play and make the Dems spend a lot of time and money there, and I don't think any other GOP candidate could, at least not if the election were this year. Anyway, if Romney becomes President, as long as he doesn't try to implement a socially conservative agenda, I'll be content. Same for Thompson. I'd have a hard time deciding between Hillary and McCain. Rossputin

  • Don
    Comment from: Don
    09/01/07 @ 06:09:09 pm

    It seems like Michigan would be the most likely big state for Romney to pick up given his family's connections there. If Romney could pick up Iowa, NH, and then squeak Michigan he might get the tsunami going. Of course Wyoming could shake that up but I suspect the big campaigns aren't going to spend the money to try to build an organization there at this late date. Maybe Ron Paul should campaign full time out there and hope for a miracle.

  • Thomas Alan
    Comment from: Thomas Alan
    09/02/07 @ 01:38:09 am

    You're underestimating Michigan's natural lean towards Gov. Romney. It's his home state and his father was a very popular governor there in the 60s. The latest poll out of the state has him in the lead and he already has a mature infrastructure in the state. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, I have little doubt that it will translate into a big win in Michigan. After 3 wins in a row (including in the 3rd biggest state in the country) his momentum may be well unstoppable.

  • Swint
    Comment from: Swint
    09/03/07 @ 07:30:14 pm

    Right now Romney is winning IA and NH, he will also win WY, which no one seems to care about. These three, being the first three will translate into wins in NV and MI. Why? Momentum, grew up in Michigan, Mormon factor in WY and NV. These being the first 5 states, and Romney having the best chance to pull them out would have HUGE impact. It would take a tank to break Romney's hold on the nomination. Basically, by January 20th there will have been 6 completed contests. Romney with 5 wins, and Thompson/Giuliani with 1 - SC. This momentum, news coverage, etc, coupled with the fact that Romney will be focusing on Florida above any other state in the upcoming months would put Florida in play. Giuliani looks unbeatable there now, but if Romney does happen to pull that out, that could be game over. So, I think you have rational analysis, however I also think you have minimized the impact of Romney winning those 5 states.