I’ve written that the Republican side of the presidential race can be viewed as consisting of two semi-finals — one between Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and the other between Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and/or Mike Huckabee. However, polling data suggests that, at least in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney may occupy his own space. In other words, it may be that Romney has his own core of solid support, such that gains by other candidates, even Huckabee, don’t come at his expense.
In New Hampshire, the case for this theory seems clear-cut. For many months, Romney’s support number (using the Real Clear Politics average as presented in the multi-color state graph) has always been within shouting distance of 30 percent, with a low of 26 percent and a high of 34 percent (he’s at 33 percent now). Moreover, since the early summer, when McCain tanked following the immigration reform debacle, gains by McCain have come at Giuliani’s expense, and gains by Huckabee have come at Thompson’s. Thompson’s support has fallen from about 14 percent to about 5, while Huckabee’s has increased from practically nil to 7 percent. Meanwhile, McCain and Giuliani are both about where they were in July. But in August, when McCain slipped by about 4 percentage points, Rudy surged by approximately the same amount. So far, then, there appears to be a Thompson-Huckabee race and a Giuliani-McCain race, with Romney standing outside of these two contests (Ron Paul has also made a move; I assume he occupies his own space).
In Iowa too, Mitt seems to have his own space, though the rest of the dynamic seems more complex. Since early summer, Romney’s average number has fluctuated between 25 and 31 percent and has generally been in the 27 or 29 percent range, where it is now. McCain has also been pretty steady since his swoon, with an average number of 7 to 9 percent.
The big move, of course, has come from Huckabee. In August, his support roughly doubled, from 5 to 10 percent. He surged again beginning in mid October. Since then, his popularity has doubled again and now stands at about 20 percent.
As in New Hampshire, Huckabee’s gain came at Thompson’s expense. However, in Iowa it also came at Giuliani’s. Indeed, the lines for Fred and Rudy in the RCP graph (green and purple, respectively) are almost identical since the summer.
But the constant in New Hampshire and Iowa has been Romney’s ability to hold his support when other candidates have surged. This could change, of course, as the field concentrates its resources on bringing down Romney.
Still, it’s not difficult to imagine the existence of a sizeable core of voters who are solidly behind Mitt. This group would consist of Republicans who are looking for a combination of administrative experience/aura of competence plus down-the-line conservative positions, and who are not concerned about past positions, speculation over electability or the candidate’s religion. Presumably, that cohort exists in most states, not just Iowa and New Hampshire. And at the end of the day, it likely exceeds the 30 percent or so that Romney has been polling in those two states.
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