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What the Republican Primary Season Has Revealed About the GOP

It’s very tempting to dismiss the Iowa caucuses as much ado about almost nothing: As Iowa goes, so goes . . . Iowa, and little more. But, despite its inherent myopia, the early part of the 2012 primary season has managed to be clarifying. Indeed, by combining the most recent survey evidence, we can learn a great deal about the state of the contemporary Republican Party.

Put simply, its dominant concerns are economic—especially the federal budget deficit. It distinguishes between candidates’ stances on the issues and their leadership/presidential qualities, and it gives a great deal of weight to the latter. The party has a grudging respect for Mitt Romney (a plurality in Iowa regards him as having “strong principles”), and it has concluded, rightly, that he has the best chance of beating President Obama next year. (Fully 41 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa now believe this, as do 63 percent of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.) At this point, then, Romney has to be regarded as the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

I’ll focus on two late-December polls, by PPP and CNN/Time. PPP’s deals only with Iowa, while CNN/Time includes a New Hampshire survey as well. As Nate Silver has pointed out, CNN/Time survey only registered Republicans in Iowa, a decision that is hard to understand, given that between one fifth and one quarter of Republican caucus attenders are likely to be Democrats and Independents who switch their registration that day, as the party rules permit.

This is a distinction with a difference. Both surveys show Mitt Romney leading among Republicans, but PPP gives Ron Paul the overall lead, reflecting his strong performance among Independents and Democrats. CNN/Time puts Rick Santorum at 16 percent, a finding widely cited as evidence of a late-breaking Santorum surge. But Santorum is more appealing to core Republicans than he is to Independents and Democrats, accounting for some of the difference between CNN/Time and PPP, which pegs him at 10 percent.

Still, there is some basis for believing that Santorum has what market watchers call “upside potential.” As PPP points out, Santorum has the best favorability numbers (56 percent favorable, 29 percent unfavorable) of any candidate in Iowa, and he’s also the most frequent second-choice candidate of voters. CNN/Time provides additional evidence. When Iowa Republicans are asked who has the best personal characteristics and presidential qualities, Santorum places third with 18 percent, trailing only Romney (25 percent) and Paul (19 percent). When Republicans are asked who is most likely to agree with them on the issues, Santorum again ranks third, at 17 percent, behind Paul (22 percent) and Romney (18 percent). (By contrast, Rick Perry gets only 12 percent for both personal qualities and issue agreement, suggesting a more limited potential for moving up.) Given all this, a third-place finish for Santorum would not be all that surprising.

There’s just one caveat. According to CNN/Time, while only 11 percent of Iowa Republicans are currently supporting Perry, 64 percent would still consider supporting him. A strong closing argument could give him a substantial boost, given that only 4 percent of Iowa Republicans see Santorum as having the best chance of defeating Obama, versus 8 percent for Perry.

If the top three finishers in Iowa are Romney, Paul, and Santorum, Romney will be in the driver’s seat, whether he wins, places, or shows. As far as I can tell, he’s a cinch to win the New Hampshire primary; the only question is the margin. Paul will probably come in a distant second, but he’s not going to be the nominee. And neither is Santorum, who has little organization and even less support in the Granite State and would be doing well to break into double digits there. And when we look south, we see that neither Paul nor Santorum has a detectable pulse in South Carolina and Florida.

Romney has (had?) more to fear from Perry and Newt Gingrich, which is why Gingrich’s fall and Perry’s failure to catch fire are so consequential. On paper, anyway, both had the potential to become the conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, who does far better among moderates and voters who regard themselves as “somewhat conservative” than he does among very conservative voters. But Newt’s chances of finishing in the top three in Iowa are fading, and he could end up ceding that spot to John Huntsman in New Hampshire as well. If Gingrich and Perry have enough left to stagger on after January 10, South Carolina may well be their last stand.

As for the issues, Iowa and New Hampshire are more alike this year than is generally understood. According to PPP, 39 percent of likely caucus-goers say that government spending/reducing the debt is their top concern, versus 25 percent for jobs and the economy, 12 percent for social issues, 4 percent for taxes, and 3 percent each for illegal immigration and foreign policy. (CNN/Time breaks the issues down differently, but among those who see the economy as “extremely important,” fully 60 percent say that the budget deficit is their top concern, versus only 20 percent for unemployment and 13 percent for taxes.) And in New Hampshire, CNN/Time finds, the rank-order of concerns is the same. A 47 plurality of likely Republican primary voters say that the economy is extremely important, and of them, the budget deficit outranks unemployment, with taxes a distant third.

And there you have it. In a year when economic concerns are dominant, Ron Paul is doing well because he’s widely seen as more credible on reducing government spending and the deficit than anyone else, while Romney is in the lead on the other two key economic issues. Romney has been sufficiently conservative on social issues and hawkish on foreign policy to satisfy the party’s base and should prove acceptable to Republicans in Florida, where he finished second with 31 percent of the vote in 2008. If he can get past South Carolina without a credible alternative emerging, he’s the nominee. And then we’ll find out whether the issue adjustments he has made since 2008 will leave him well enough positioned to carry the Independent vote next fall.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript: As I reread my piece before sending it off, my mind drifted back to early1984, when I was serving as Issues Director in Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. On February 20, Mondale won the Iowa caucuses with 49 percent of the vote, while Gary Hart finished a distant second with 17 percent. Eight days later, on the morning of the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times published a front-page story whose lead paragraph is seared into my memory:

“With Senator John Glenn continuing to fade and no new challenger emerging strongly, Walter F. Mondale now holds the most commanding lead ever recorded this early in a Presidential nomination campaign by a nonincumbent, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.”

Sixteen hours later, Gary Hart had won the New Hampshire primary by an astounding 9 percentage points, the race was turned upside down, and Mondale nearly lost it. Could it happen again? I don’t see how. But I didn’t 28 years ago either.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.