Election year has finally arrived, well after the beginning of a turbulent and unpredictable elections season, and voting begins on Tuesday in the Iowa Republicans caucuses.
The few days of post-Christmas polling have shown the numbers oscillating and opinion changing in ways it hadn’t been earlier in the campaign.
Pre-Christmas, Barack Obama’s job rating was on a bit of an uptick, nudging up toward but not quite reaching 50 percent approval in several polls. But two polls taken in the three days after Christmas by Gallup and Rasmussen show him with solidly negative job ratings, and Rasmussen shows him trailing Mitt Romney 45 percent to 39 percent — his worst showing against Romney ever.
Americans want to think well of their presidents and want their presidents to succeed. Those desires will work for Obama.
But these latest numbers are a reminder that most Americans believe the Obama Democrats’ policies have failed to revive the economy and have produced an overlarge, under-competent and crony-capitalist government.
We’ll see over the next months how the president’s rating fares, but we’ll see in two days, when Republicans head to the precinct caucuses held at 1,774 locations in the 99 counties of Iowa, whether recent opinion shifts in polls are for real.
A necessary caveat here is the polling in this case is particularly dicey, since pollsters are trying to measure opinion among a relatively small number of Republican caucusgoers — 119,000 in 2008 in a state of 3 million. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.
That said, poll results and reports of political events on the ground suggest that opinion is shifting and that the caucus results could look a lot different from the pre-Christmas polls.
Romney seems to be holding steady, perhaps gaining, while Ron Paul may be losing ground thanks perhaps to revelations of his old newsletters.
Newt Gingrich has been on a clear downward trajectory, with about half the support in Iowa polls he had in his heady days from mid-November to mid-December.
Rick Santorum, whose 357 events in all 99 counties had no visible effect in polls for months, is now clearly surging. With support from religious conservatives, he’s suddenly in third place with 16 percent in the latest CNN/Time and Rasmussen polls, close enough to the leaders to be within striking distance.
Rick Perry is not showing as much progress despite a big ad buy. And Michele Bachmann got bad publicity last week when her Iowa chairman switched to back Paul.
All of which raises the possibility that the top three finishers in Iowa may be, and not necessarily in this order, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.
What then? The next contest is New Hampshire on Jan. 10, where Mitt Romney continues to hold a solid lead and where Jon Huntsman has been building support that could push him above Paul and Gingrich for second place.
Ten days later comes South Carolina, which was decisive in determining the Republican nominations in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2008. Gingrich’s big leads there, scored when he was leading nationally, may already have vanished or surely will if he lags in the first two contests.
Each hypothetical contender in South Carolina has some weakness. Romney has seen Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich far outpoll him — a sign of real voter resistance. Paul’s poll numbers are lower than in Iowa and New Hampshire, and in this high-turnout primary it will be harder for his small number of activists to make the kind of impact they can in low-turnout Iowa.
As for Santorum and Huntsman, neither starts off with any appreciable support or organization in South Carolina. Neither has the Southern background or military record that helped the George Bushes and John McCain win here.
As for Florida, which votes Jan. 31, the Romney campaign has been working it quietly for months. They’ll have plenty of money for TV in a state twice as populous as the other three put together, a head start where they won in 2008 (Jacksonville and the Gulf Coast) and important Cuban-American endorsements in Miami.
None of this guarantees a victory for Romney, but most of it points in that direction. Back in November, Gingrich predicted that Romney would crack under pressure and would fall by the wayside. It looks like the opposite’s been happening.