The polls are really starting to get to be a yawner. How many more national polls will there be showing a Rudy-McCain race, with everyone else in single digits? As State29 said in critiquing the Iowa poll:
Remember, Iowa is the state where Pat Robertson got nearly 25% in 1988. Pat Buchanan got over 23% in 1996. And both Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer received 14% each in 2000. Without a poll showing 25% to 30% of Iowa Republicans going for some religious nut or fringe wacko, I consider it null and void.
The point is well taken. In every Presidential election since time immemorial, someone who was polling in asterisks went on to make waves. In 1980, it was George H.W. Bush; in 1988, Pat Robertson; in 1996, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, in 2000, John McCain. In terms of winning the big enchilada, these candidates have a collective batting average of .000, but they posed serious challenges to the frontrunners.
It seems inevitable that a more conservative candidate will rise to challenge one of the two "moderates" on top. And with dual frontrunners, one of the two top dogs will likely be crowded out to make way for the traditional frontrunner vs. challenger dynamic. But whom? Rudy -- whose pro-life supporters will desert him once they find out his super secret (ht: DaveG) social views? Or McCain -- frontrunner in all things tactical, but dead last in the hearts and minds of the grassroots?
There is polling out there that gives us a hint at the answer, and what a field with Romney or Huckabee at 20% might look like.
Over the past several months in its state polls, Strategic Vision has been test driving two or three versions of its ballot test question, primarily introducing Condi Rice on a second question. I have been critical of this practice with respect to the fact that it will depress support for the "new" candidate. But if it's not the actual level of support for Condi Rice that matters so much as which candidate she tends to steal support from, then it can be a window into the ebb and flow of support in this wide open field.
In a sample of 13 Strategic Vision state polls taken since April, the results were as follows:
Ballot without Condi: Giuliani 37.4%, McCain 27.1% (Giuliani lead of 10.3%)
Ballot with Condi: Giuliani 34.3%, McCain 21.0%, Rice 12.2% (Giuliani lead of 13.4%)
Condi Effect: Giuliani -3.1%, McCain -6.1%
So Condi Rice would take twice as many votes from McCain as from Rudy. The 3% swing to Rudy should be more like 5% when you take into account how depressed Condi's vote share is using this technique. These results were consistent across the sample, with only one of the thirteen polls showing her pulling more from Giuliani.
Now, we take Secretary Rice on her word that she's not running, and I'm not realistically suggesting using her as a spoiler candidate. But the effect she has on McCain is significant because Condi's support in polls comes primarily from conservatives -- the same audience that Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownback are courting aggressively.
Last week's Pew survey highlighted this same point. Among conservatives, she actually led, with 23%. But her support among moderate-to-liberal Republicans and all voters was a notch lower, 18%. As the only recognizable "Bush heir" in the field, she has the kind of support that any conservative challenger would need to duplicate to have a shot.
And if I'm the campaign pollster for Mitt Romney, I'm thinking that those voters are much more easily peeled off from John McCain.
I e-mailed David Johnson of Strategic Vision to ask if I was heading in the right direction. Here was his response:
Every piece of polling evidence that we have from our statewide polls show that Rudy Giuliani and not John McCain is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2008 regardless of who else is in the race. In only one state does McCain outpoll Giuliani -- Michigan -- and that can be attributed to the residual effect of McCain's victory in the state in 2000. However, in that state, Romney is on the rise and he is taking voters away from McCain not Giuliani. At this time, it appears that Romney is emerging as the candidate to break out of the pack and take on Giuliani and McCain. (emphasis added)
So, in scenarios where both Rice and Romney grab a higher share of the vote, they take more from McCain. As Romney rises, McCain falls and Rudy stays steady, setting up a Giuliani vs. Romney battle for Iowa and New Hampshire. The scenario I laid out with McCain struggling to keep his head above water (20% support) by July of '07 is being telegraphed by this early polling.
Also of note: The South has traditionally been one of McCain's stronger regions, but Rudy has opened up a lead in Georgia. Could this have something to do with Newt Gingrich's polling in the high teens in his home state?
I also asked Johnson what danger there was Rudy would implode once his social views were known. Again, that dog won't hunt -- and combined with the other findings, it would seem that pro-lifers are shopping around for a better advocate than McCain.
What is interesting is that McCain's support fluctuates back and forth while Guiliani's stays solid and rises slightly in our various polls. When we have identified Guiliani's social position in polls in the South, he continues to hold his own or slightly outpoll McCain.
Johnson further attributes this to social conservatives wanting a strong leader who would continue the war on terror. (This is certainly borne out in the Iowa poll, which shows the war outstripping moral values as a concern by 3 to 1.) Johnson also brings up a fascinating historical parallel: conservatives were first attracted to Ronald Reagan for his foreign policy views, not his social conservatism. In fact, when he ran in 1976, his record on social issues could have been considered quite liberal, since he signed one of the most permissive abortion laws in the nation as Governor of California.
All this said -- Don't get cocky. I don't think John McCain will be around to bother us in February '08, but that doesn't mean we won't face an even more formidable challenger. Post Macaca, that looks like it will be Mitt Romney.