What the Huckabee “boomlet” reveals about Romney
“Two interesting and interrelated questions about the Mike Huckabee boomlet,” writes Frank Newport in a sentence without a verb that begins a USA Today GallupGuru post titled Timing and the Mike Huckabee Boomlet
First, has Huckabee peaked? And second, has the Huckabee boom come a few weeks too early to be maximally effective for his campaign?
The (truly) extraordinary national news media focus on the Iowa caucuses at this point is bound-up in the presumption that the results there on Jan 3rd will dramatically affect the mindset of voters who are not in Iowa.
Newport is careful with his language—presumption is correct. Especially in Romney’s case. If Newport is correct that performance in Iowa predicts performance in later primary contests, then Romney’s performance predicts disaster regardless of the outcome in Iowa.
… The key question: Will Huckabee become the GOP front-runner if he does well in Iowa?
In a way polling has given us a mini-preview of the answer to that question in the last few weeks. We’re seeing now a pre-creation of the process that will occur if Huckabee does well in Iowa. Republican voters across the country are getting a preview of the type of exposure to Huckabee they will get in earnest if he is the big news story coming out of the Jan. 3rd caucuses.
To be sure, as a result of this early pre-creation of a strong Iowa caucus showing, Republican voters have indeed elevated their views of Mike Huckabee. He is for the most part not campaigning in any states other than a select few with early caucuses and primaries. But Huckabee’s name ID has essentially doubled nationally from 31% in August to 58% today. His standing as first choice among Republicans for their party’s nomination has gone from 1% to 16%.
Our question: If this is the case for Gov. Huckabee, has the polling then also given us a mini-preview of Romney’s performance should he take Iowa? Regard: Romney led in the polls for months in Iowa, often by double digits, occasioned by massive media attention. Yet unlike Gov. Huckabee, Romney’s name ID never doubled, nor did his standing markedly improve. By Newport’s criterion Romney is doomed.
The unknown factor: to what degree will this momentum continue?
The unknown factor for Romney: why did no momentum ever develop after months of leading in the polls in Iowa?
We have a hint of an answer in our latest USA Today/Gallup poll. The Huckabee boomlet, so to speak, has to some degree apparently leveled off. Huckabee’s image has actually become a little more negative over the last two weeks. His favorable number gained only 1 point from early December to this past weekend. His unfavorable number went up by 6 points. And his share of the GOP vote stayed exactly the same, at 16%.
The data from other national polls on Huckabee are mixed. Some conducted over the last two weeks show Huckabee almost tied with Rudy Giuliani. Others — like our USA Today/Gallup poll – show that Giuliani maintains a modest lead over Huckabee and the rest of the pack. (We are about to go through a period of data-deprivation as pollsters pull back from interviewing between Christmas and New Years.)
But our data suggest at least the possibility that at the national level Huckabee has peaked. It’s possible that the potential energy caused by a Huckabee win or strong showing in Iowa next month is already built into our data as a result of his pre-vote strength. This in turn could suggest that the impact of whatever happens as a result of Iowa on Jan. 3rd on Huckabee’s national numbers may not be all that big.
Yuh-huh. The same would follow for Romney, who has been building up expectations in Iowa for months and months.
There’s another interesting factor here.
I’m not sure that Huckabee’s staff is all that estatic that their candidate is getting so much national play more than two weeks before Iowa. The potential trouble is the fabled expectations game. Anything less than a strong victory in Iowa could now be interpreted as a weak showing, a slipping, a weakness, a problem. The surprise factor in Huckabee’s ability to garner the support of GOP voters in Iowa is already out there. A strong showing is now expected.
Most campaign professionals would much rather have low expectations and exceed them than to have high expectations and underperform them. (Of course, having high expectations is in some ways a good problem to have. Ron Paul would love to have higher expectations of his performance in Iowa at the moment, I imagine). But it all plays to the critically important question of how the Iowa caucus results will play out at the national level … etc.
We have argued that Gov. Huckabee’s rise is an artifact of—or a reaction to—Romney’s near saturation of Iowa’s media markets. See:
- Lowry on the the Romney backlash, and more on Romney’s agony-in-Iowa
- Romney’s absurd marketing strategy enables Gov. Mike Huckabee
- Romney campaign a victim of the “sunk cost effect”—also: how Gov. Huckabee’s sudden ascendancy is an artifact of the Romney campaign’s misguided activities
What should interest Romney-observers is Romney’s grim and hysterical over-reaction to the cresting of Gov. Huckabee’s “boomlet.” Imagine the benefit to Romney’s stature had he welcomed Gov. Huckabee to join the discussion of issues in Iowa. Instead, an angry Romney puffed up like an obscenely distended blowfish and nearly burst because of a statistical anomaly that he himself created, a rival candidate who never had a chance and who should have been left to his own devices. See:
Now Romney is confronted by the grim task of managing what will be a fierce backlash against his pointless attacks. Here is but one example that we found at random:
… I also want to note that I have long held Mitt Romney as a viable second choice for me if Huckabee were not in the race. However, with the increasingly negative tone of Gov. Romney’s attacks against Huckabee I am beginning to believe that I might not be able to support Romney at all … even if he becomes the eventual nominee. I am very concerned and bothered by the reactions I have seen from Gov. Romney and the conservative media (Fox News, Hannity, Limbaugh, Hewitt, et. al.). It seems that the depth of camaraderie they claimed with those of us in the social conservative movement may instead be as shallow and meaningless as the Clinton’s wedding vows. These conservative pundits are perilously close to causing a rift in the GOP that they may not be able to mend …