By Brent Moritz
On Thursday, Fox News released a national poll showing all of the Republican candidates from December 15-16, 2007: Giuliani was in the lead with 20% of the responses, though McCain, Huckabee, Romney and Thompson all registered in double digits. You can view the article here: http://youdecide08.foxnews.com/2007/12/20/fox-news-poll-three-way-toss-up-in-republican-presidential-sweeps/ While the article makes a number of points, two are worth repeating: First, this is a tight race with no clear national leader. Second, 13% of the Republican voters are still undecided. Since Fox News was good enough to include a link to all of their data, I decided to look a little more closely at the data, doing a bit of meta-analysis to compare several polling periods from this summer with the most recent results.
Since mid-summer, Huckabee has surged from polling in the 3% range at 19% in the most recent poll, and in part he has caught that proverbial “lightning in a bottle” as evidenced by that unexpected increase. What is interesting is that the two candidates who have lost the most support are Giuliani (losing 7%) and Thompson (losing 6%). A few other marginal candidates (Brownback, Thompson and Hagel) have dropped out of the race since then as well. The rise of Huckabee and the relatively high number of undecided voters seems to indicate a lot of dissatisfaction with the initial slate of candidates.
However, it points to some of the challenges Romney has had to face in his quest for the Republican nomination. In the summer, Romney was running against McCain, Thompson and Giuliani and Huckabee was about as relevant as Dennis Kucinich. Yet as Huckabee rose in the poll, Romney’s support nationally has not decreased. However, Thompson and Giuliani have seen their support drop by one third.
What will be interesting is how this trend continues. Naturally, the folksy former pastor Huckabee has struck a chord with many evangelical conservatives, but can Huckabee win the nomination? As the primaries go forward, what will happen to the supporters of the candidates who are forced to drop out of the race.
It seems like we should look at this week’s decision of Tom Tancredo: While he was focused on immigration, it also seems to me like Tancredo recognized Romney’s strengths as leader and ability to win in November. The next major candidate to drop out is likely to be Fred Thompson, as a couple of third place showings are likely to be the end of his candidacy. It seems likely that at least some of the Thompson supporters will go to Huckabee, but the thought process for Thompson and his supporters now has to include Mitt Romney.
Then there is the question of the Giuliani supporters. As much as “America’s Mayor” can grab national attention, his support within the Republican Party is taking a nosedive. If this trend continues, Giuliani will be forced to drop out of the race, though it does appear he can maintain his campaign longer than Thompson. Those Giuliani supporters are far less likely to join Huckabee, and Romney or McCain are the best options for them. If either Thompson or Giuliani were to endorse Romney, it would be a real boost for his candidacy and it seems unlikely that Giuliani in particular would endorse Huckabee.
What is happening is that Romney’s ability to unite the party allows him to gain votes as each candidate drops by the wayside. His leadership and organization will carry him through the initial primaries and turn it in to a long-term contest. Over time, the enthusiasm that has spiked surrounding Huckabee is likely to moderate, especially as fiscal conservatives start to review his record. In the end, first the Republicans and then the nation must decide who we want to lead us in a new direction, and Romney has the leadership and experience to make it happen.