Two weeks away from the Iowa Caucuses and it now appears the race is a three-man race between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Yes, that’s right, Ron Paul, the candidate who advocates letting Iran get the bomb and legalizing pot is now in competition for the Iowa Caucuses. An onslaught of negative ads from Paul and Romney have firmly driven down Gingrich’s numbers in the state and nationwide. Meanwhile, taking the rest of the support are Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, unlikely but still able to rise in Iowa on Caucus night.
Paul has always firmly had a block of support nationwide and in Iowa. But as it has become clearer to conservatives the GOP nominee will likely be Gingrich, Romney, or Perry (outside shot) some voters might be giving him a second look and liking him. He has a lot of anti-traditional GOP positions, especially on foreign policy, but his supporters are fervent and have a great ground game for Caucus night. Paul has always been polling in the single high to mid digits in Iowa but in recent weeks he has taken off. In two new polls Paul has surged to a lead. In one surveyPPP) he has a small lead and in the other a slightly larger lead. In the PPP survey Paul gets 23% to Romney’s 20% and Gingrich’s 14%. Nobody else is above 10%. The Insider Advantage survey has Paul leading Romney 24% to 18% and Perry third with 16%.
Serious questions remain though about Paul’s viability, even in Iowa. In the PPP survey Paul’s narrow lead can be attributed to the fact he has not gained support among Republicans but from Democrats and Independents. The same rings true in the Insider Advantage survey to give Paul his edge. These are iffy voters to turn out on election day. It also says a lot when your opponent party’s voters think you should win because you are such a weak general election candidate.
So can Paul really, realistically win Iowa? The evidence listed above points to a definite maybe. Paul’s coalition of support may be extremely unusual and weak in some respects but he has a solid core of support. He has plenty of grass-roots money and his campaign has ramped up their ground game and learned from the lessons of 2008. Then Paul did not invest in a ground game and finished a disappointing fifth, never being a force in the nomination. But now Paul is polling strongly and could realistically finish second or third in the state.
So let’s assume Paul wins Iowa. What would that mean for the rest of the GOP nomination? Right now not much. PPP and Insider Advantage also polled the New Hampshire and South Carolina races. PPP found that Romney still has a commanding lead in the state. He leads Gingrich and Paul with 35% while Paul is at 19% and Gingrich at 17%. Insider Advantage surveyed the South Carolina primary and finds Gingrich ahead of Romney 31%-19% with nobody else close. A new Clemson University survey also finds Gingrich with a commanding 38%-21% lead over Romney in the state and Paul back at 7%.
These surveys suggest Paul’s recent rise in IA is due to a confluence of unusual factors extremely difficult to replicate across the nation. Paul’s cries for defense of the little guy, his libertarian stances on social and drug issues (which may be why he polls well among Democrats) and the fact many voters are turned off by Gingrich and Romney are fueling his campaign.
These factors, while relevant in Iowa may not matter so much elsewhere in the GOP nominating states. New Hampshire is far more anti-establishment then libertarian. Moreover, New Hampshire likes to make sure they do not rubber-stamp the nominee rather than anoint him. So if Paul wins IA he may carry some momentum forward but the issues he used to great success in IA will likely ring hollow in NH. Likewise NH may reject him simply because he won Iowa. South Carolina is much the same story. Gingrich has a regional advantage over Paul and Romney. Paul’s libertarian stances on foreign policy and social issues will not play well among a deeply socially and national defense orientated electorate. Keep in mind South Carolina voted for hawkish Republican Lindsey Graham by a significant margin in 2008. Then we get to Florida which has shown no inclination to lean towards Paul. Neither has Nevada or Michigan. By the time we get to Super Tuesday Paul’s win in IA could his only major victory and his delegate count minimal.
This is not to say that Paul cannot win the nomination. But even with his rise in IA he has to be considered a long-shot. The early nominating states after Iowa (to say nothing of the rest of the GOP electorate) really do not share many of Paul’s unorthodox views. Recent polling data suggests this. A new CNN national survey finds Gingrich and Romney tied at 28% while is far back in third with 14% (it is a testament to his staying power he is here). In Gallup Daily tracking Gingrich and Romney are statistically tied with 26% and 24% and Paul is again in third with 11%. Time after time nationwide surveys have found Paul’s support strong but shallow and thin.
Paul has a better shot at winning the GOP nomination then he did a week ago. I still would not bet on it though.