CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Just two weeks before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses there’s a new leader, but the race remains “remarkably fluid,” according to a new Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll likely Republican caucus-goers.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul has moved into first place – the fifth candidate to hold that spot since the mid-August Iowa GOP Straw Poll. The data collected between Dec. 8 and 18 suggest that unlike the previous frontrunners, Paul’s support is more solid.
Paul is the first choice of 27.5 percent of 333 likely caucus-goers among the 740 registered Republicans and 200 registered independents contacted by ISU. That’s up from 20.4 percent in an ISU/Gazette/KCRG poll in November. He’s followed closely by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich whose support increased from 4.8 percent to 25.3 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in at 17.5 percent, up from 16.3.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann slipped four-tenths of a percentage point to 7.4 percent. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Rick Santorum edged up two-tenths of a percentage point to at 4.9 percent. Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who suspended his campaign while he was the frontrunner at 24.5 percent, fell to 0.4 percent. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman polled 0.3 percent and “can’t decide” at 5.4 percent. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
While Paul’s lead is easily within the margin of error, James McCormick, professor and chair of political science at Iowa State and coordinator of the poll, says the polling found that 51 percent of those naming the libertarian-leaning Texan as their first choice are “definitely” backing him.
The percentage for the next two candidates is much weaker, at 16.1 percent for Romney and 15.2 for Gingrich, McCormick said.
“Moreover, the percentage of respondents ‘leaning to’ or ‘still undecided’ in their support for these latter two candidates remains high, at 58 percent for Gingrich and 38 percent for Romney,” he said. “In other words, I’m going to make the case that these numbers are still very soft for those two candidates.”
His colleague, Dave Peterson, interim director of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State and associate professor of political science who assisted with the poll, says that suggests Paul “probably under-polls.”
“His supporters are younger and more likely to reply on a cell phone, so he’s probably going to perform better than his polling suggests,” Peterson says. “His supporters also are dedicated and will likely turn out on caucus night and not change their minds.”
The ISU pollsters found the race “remarkably fluid” with 37.8 percent of respondents indicating they were still trying to decide and another 34.1 percent only leaning towards one candidate. Only 28.1 percent indicated that they had definitely decided who they would support.
“Because we surveyed the same likely caucus-goers in November, these results do indicate some movement to strengthening the commitment to a particular candidate,” McCormick said. “In November, only 16.5 percent indicated that they had definitely committed to a candidate.”
Given that uncertainty, caucus-goers’ second choice may be critical to the outcome on caucus night. While “can’t decide” was the most frequent answer — 23.7 percent, Romney and Gingrich had double-digit support, with Michele Bachmann at just over 9 percent as second choices.
Because the same individuals were surveyed in November and December, ISU pollsters were able to determine that Gingrich is the first choice of 38 percent of the former Cain supporters. Paul gets another 20 percent, Perry 14 percent and Romney 8.5 percent.
Asked to select the most important factor in motivating their support for a candidate, 32 percent of respondent said “takes a strong stand” followed by 24.7 percent saying “can win the general election” and 24.4 percent going with “has the right experience,”
Paul did well on taking strong stances and the right experience, and even better on a fourth factor: “cares about people.”
“Ron Paul doesn’t look like the typical presidential candidate,” McCormick said. “I went over to his (Dec. 8) talk at the Memorial Union and heard him and he’s sort of soft-spoken and not particularly strong on the stump. But his message is obviously connecting. Yeah he doesn’t at all look like the typical presidential candidate, so he’s the anti-Washington, anti-politician that he’s trying to portray himself — and it strikes a responsive chord among many people.”
Gingrich did well on each of the three most frequently mentioned factors, but he did the best with the experience and electable factors. Romney scored best among the respondents on the experience and electable factors, although he was behind Gingrich on both of them.
Asked to select from a list of 12 issues the most important one to them personally, the results were 35.1 percent “the jobs and economy,” 24.3 percent “the size and role of the federal government” and 21.5 percent “national debt and the deficit.”
In all, 81 percent of the respondents identified one of these three issues as most important.
The new Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll was compiled through phone interviews between Dec. 8 and 18, of 740 registered Republicans and 200 registered independents. Of those polled, 333 (35.4 percent) stated that they definitely or probably would attend the caucuses.
The ISU /Gazette/KCRG Poll is supported by ISU’s Department of Political Science, the Department of Statistics, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, the Office of Vice President for Research and Economic Development, and the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs; as well as The Gazette and KCRG-TV9.