The first presidential election in fifty-six years without an incumbent president or vice president on the ballot has surprised politicos and challenged conventional wisdom, seemingly at every turn. No one expected the implosion of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s campaign, with its structural shake-ups and dives in both fundraising and poll numbers. The Democratic Party, which prides itself in its traditional infighting and refusal to nominate the establishment candidate in presidential contests, has solidified its support for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who leads Illinois Sen. Barack Obama by as many as twenty points in some national polls. Yet despite other recent events, there are still those who continue to cling to the old conventional wisdom and deny that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who would be the first non-Protestant or non-Catholic to win a presidential nomination by either major political party, currently stands in the best position to clinch the Republican nod.
Strategists inconclusively debated the significance of Romney’s recent win in the Ames Straw Poll, perhaps the largest straw poll leading into the primary season. Despite a field of seven participants, he only took 31.6% of the votes cast. And further, Romney’s three biggest competitors, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and Senator McCain, declined to actively campaign in Ames.
At the same time, however, Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain each had a reason for not taking part in the event that first recognized President George W. Bush’s strength as a candidate in 1999. Ames draws thousands of Republican activists from across Iowa, thus making the contest a measure of organizational strength. Romney has established the best organization in Iowa, especially since organization is largely a function of money—one of Romney’s advantages. Although his numbers have yet to extend nationally, Romney’s efforts in Iowa have translated into positive movement in Iowa polls, with multiple polls showing him with over double the support of his closest challenger. As far as the diminished significance of his Ames win goes, political analyst Charlie Cook points out in a recent column that he still beat his nearest competitor, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, by over thirteen points. Cook goes on to recognize that the margin of Romney’s win still outdistances either George W. Bush’s ten-point 1999 win over Steve Forbes or Pat Robertson’s nine-point 1987 win over Bob Dole.
Romney’s strength has not been limited to Iowa, however. The Real Clear Politics average of polls conducted in New Hampshire shows Romney with at least a ten-point lead, while the most recent poll out of Nevada shows him ahead by a similar margin. And in Romney’s birth state of Michigan—which is poised to move its primaries up to January 15, likely making it the fourth in the country to hold a nominating contest—he holds a two-point lead in the most recent poll. In other words, while Romney continues to lag in national polls, he has had success in many of the early-voting states that often influence voters across the country.
If the 2004 race for the Democratic nomination for president is any indicator, it may not matter that Romney does not win national polls. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry became the Democratic nominee for president largely because he came from behind to win Iowa and followed suit in other states, even though former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was considered the frontrunner at the time. Indeed, in the end, only two states, South Carolina and Oklahoma, did not vote for Kerry, despite later misgivings by many Democrats that they should have nominated a stronger candidate. As with Kerry, early Romney wins could catapult him to the front, possibly even breaking down the barrier of fellow early state South Carolina, considered Romney’s toughest challenge before Super Tuesday.
The 2008 election’s trend of primary frontloading could also aid a domino effect after likely Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even as states like Wyoming, Michigan, and Florida move their primaries ahead of February 5, the earliest date allowed under party rules, over twenty states now plan to hold their primaries on February 5. For the first time in a presidential election season, over 40% of delegates to the party conventions will be awarded by the first week in February.
As stated earlier, however, 2008 has been an election season that has bucked conventional wisdom. Although early wins have been key to securing presidential nominations in the past, they may not carry Romney to St. Paul, where the Republicans will hold their 2008 convention. The Romney campaign’s biggest fear should be that his rivals would render an Iowa win worthless. Indeed, Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain could conceivably forego competing in Iowa because of Romney’s seemingly impenetrable lead, the same way they opted out of actively competing in the Ames Straw Poll. Such a strategy would hold significant risk, as Iowa has made or broken campaigns in the past, but it could succeed in diminishing Romney’s momentum.
A recent leak from the Giuliani campaign stated that Florida, where he continues to hold a strong lead, is his “firewall.” Moreover, Giuliani is ahead by substantial margins in large states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California—all of which will hold primaries on February 5. This large state strategy, though unconventional, could give him the necessary boost to secure the nomination. Then again, momentum from Romney wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan could cut into Giuliani’s leads in Florida and the Super Tuesday states, threatening his candidacy. To win the GOP nomination, Giuliani has to find a way to nullify Romney’s possible early wins.
The primary pre-season is coming to an end with the Iowa caucuses only four months away, and at this point Mitt Romney’s campaign stands in the best position. Political commentator Craig Crawford asserted that Rudy Giuliani won the pre-season, on the grounds that he maintains his lead in national polls, but such reasoning is short-sighted. Giuliani’s national leads have only declined as time has worn on, and if the trend continues he will fall behind. John McCain’s poll numbers have been literally cut in half over the pre-season. And Fred Thompson’s long-awaited official entrance into the presidential race has people questioning whether waiting so long to join the fray has sapped the enthusiasm of his early supporters. Indeed, Mitt Romney is the only major Republican presidential candidate whose numbers are currently climbing, even if he is not yet out in front of the pack. Such momentum is the most important asset in a campaign at this juncture, for it will enable him to come from behind to win, just as John Kerry did in Iowa in 2004. If he can keep up the momentum, it may put a former freshman from our own Wilbur Hall on the path to the White House.