Iowa Poll Results Favor Clinton and Romney

The latest Des Moines Register poll of about 400 likely primary voters from each major party shows Hillary Clinton taking the Democratic lead in Iowa from John Edwards and Mitt Romney maintaining his lead among Republicans even with the official entrance of Fred Thompson into the race.

The prior poll, taken in May, had John Edwards leading Hillary Clinton among Democrats by 29% to 21%. Last week’s poll show’s they’ve switched places with Clinton now at 29%, Edwards at 23%, and Barack Obama moving down to 22%.

In May, Mitt Romney had 29% in the Register’s poll. Last week he received 30%. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani fell from 18% and 17%, respectively, to 7% and 11% with Mike Huckabee jumping up to 11% from 4% and Fred Thompson, who was not included in the May poll, taking second with 18%. Giuliani has not put much effort into Iowa, clearly affecting his results there.

Answers to other poll questions and internals are at least as interesting as the top-line results.

Candidates were rated on the traits of integrity, leadership, experience, toughness, intelligence, vision, charisma, electability, and morality. For each trait either Romney or Clinton came in at the top for his or her party, but only for intelligence did they both win.

Senator Clinton came in highest among Democrats in leadership, experience, toughness, intelligence, and electability. She led these categories convincingly, with ratings between 40% and 50% in all of them, with the closest competitor rarely over 20%. In the categories of integrity, vision, charisma, and morality, Clinton came in a fairly distant second or third.

Among Republicans, Mitt Romney got the highest ratings for integrity, intelligence, vision, charisma, and morality, though with smaller margins than Clinton’s. He ranked second to Rudy Giuliani in leadership and electability, a close third to both Giuliani and McCain in experience, but a very distant fourth in toughness.

The poll asked respondents whom they would vote for if they knew that their party would win the election. Democratic candidates got substantially identical results for “truly the best” and “actual first choice”. Among Republicans, however, Romney received only 20% for “truly the best” versus his 29% first choice votes. Fred Thompson showed a similar pattern with 12% saying “truly the best” versus 18% “actual first choice”. Of the three nationally-leading candidates, only Rudy Giuliani scored higher in “truly the best” than he got in first choice votes, by 14% to 11%.

Senator Clinton gets strong support from people who believe her strength in related traits of leadership, experience and toughness (and high expectations for electability) outweigh their serious doubts about her morality and integrity and her having less “vision” or charisma than either Edwards or Obama.

Iowa Republicans on the other hand, are strongly supporting Mitt Romney despite their lack of confidence in his experience, toughness, or electability. Instead, they support Romney because of his personal traits and their perception of his being intelligent, moral, and having real integrity and vision.

Apparently running counter to stereotype, Iowa Democrats are supporting Clinton because they see her as tough and Iowa Republicans are supporting Romney despite seeing him as not so tough.

If you are a candidate, what can you make of these results? Senator Clinton made large gains in the poll without describing any real vision, indeed by generally avoiding answering questions that have any substance. Simply repeating that she has much more experience than the others seems to be enough so far. If I were Senator Clinton, I would keep saying as little as possible until the media simply won’t let me get away with it anymore. If I were Obama or Edwards, I’d be very worried. Iowa Democrats claim that being anti-war is their single biggest policy factor yet they are giving an edge to the least anti-war of the three leading candidates. If you can’t beat her at her weakest point and your strongest, it’s hard to imagine how to beat her at all.

The Republican situation is more interesting. If I were Mitt Romney, I would work on strengthening the perception of my toughness and leadership. If I were Giuliani, I would work a bit on perceptions of intelligence and morality. (Rudy rated highest among only 12% on the former and a shockingly low 3% in the latter.) Republicans in Iowa are equally unhappy with Giuliani’s support of abortion rights and Romney’s purported “shift in position” on that and other issues. They are also about equally uncomfortable with Romney’s being Mormon and Rudy’s having been divorced twice. Although much of Romney’s lead over Giuliani in Iowa must be due to Romney’s spending a lot of time and money there and Rudy spending almost none, that does not entirely explain so large a lead for Romney.

One thing Clinton and Romney have in common among Iowa respondents is a huge “gender gap” lead, with each of them getting the support of 1/3 of likely female primary voters from their respective parties. Obama is second among Democrats at 21%. Among Republican women, Mike Huckabee received 14% followed by Thompson and Giuliani at 12% and 10% respectively. Mitt Romney’s huge lead among women is not as easy to explain as Hillary’s except that he’s clearly the best looking Republican candidate.

Can Romney’s winning smile and perception of integrity carry him far past Iowa despite doubts about his experience and especially his toughness? Possible though not probable. Can Hillary remain the nationwide Democrat front-runner with an exactly opposite strategy, focusing on leadership and toughness while ignoring doubts about character? Almost certainly.