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Monday, August 15, 2011

Iowa Fallout

The Iowa straw poll has no binding significance whatsoever, but the results of Saturday’s affair had significant consequences nonetheless.

For one thing, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race because he didn’t gain the psychological benefit that would have come from a first or second place showing. He tried hard. He was all over Iowa (his neighbor state) but the Republicans in that state -- or at least the ones who voted in the Ames straw poll -- didn’t become wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy.

That Pawlenty was not able to generate enthusiasm from Republicans was evident from our data all year. His name recognition among Republicans moved up during the year, from 39% in January to 56% in the first week of August, but his fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann’s moved up more -- from 52% to 78%.  Pawlenty was also never able to gain the “strongly favorable” responses from Republicans that would signify he was making a dent in their collective consciousness. Over the first week of August, Pawlenty’s Positive Intensity Score was 7, which compares to 18 for Bachmann and 23 for Rick Perry.  Pawlenty had seen a Positive Intensity Score as high as 17 earlier in the year, but the more he campaigned, the lower his score sank. The exact same process was apparently at work in Iowa. Pawlenty presented himself to the voters. The voters were not wildly impressed.

This is despite the fact that on paper Pawlenty was a strong potential candidate. One pundit in fact -- Mark Halperin of TIME Magazine and MSNBC -- annointed Pawlenty as one of three former governors (along with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) who were the front-runners to win the nomination. As I noted at the time, that prognostication was made without benefit of data. Even then, we were seeing no signs that Pawlenty was lighting the type of fire under GOP voters as was, for example, Michele Bachmann -- who this past weekend got the most votes in the Iowa straw poll.

And what about Huntsman? He didn’t campaign in Iowa (neither did Mitt Romney) and got relatively few votes. Huntsman was in the Thursday night’s GOP debate. As was the case for Pawlenty, we see no signs of enthusiasm among rank-and-file Republicans for Huntsman. His name recognition has remained remarkably low -- at 39% among Republicans nationwide in the first week of August. Whether he will be able to emerge as a viable candidate going forward is doubtful.

Rick Perry does generate enthusiasm -- with a net Positive Intensity Score among Republicans at the top of the list, along with Herman Cain and Bachmann. (New Positive Intensity Scores for this week will be out Tuesday at 1:00 p.m.). All three of these candidates have an “it” factor that reaches out and grabs voters -- at least at the moment. Bachmann’s Positive Intensity Score has wavered up and down over the year but remains strong. It will be interesting to see what happens to Perry’s now that he is officially in the race. Candidates like Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Huntsman have seen their Positive Intensity Scores wane as they intensified their campaigning. Bachmann has been the exception to this process.

Mitt Romney has a relatively lower Positive Intensity Score. He however leads our trial heat polling and must therefore be considered one of the front-runners for his party’s nomination.

Perry said in his announcement on Saturday in South Carolina -- after the usual promises to create jobs and get citizens working again: “And I’ll promise you this: I’ll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

This makes the contrast with the position taken by President Obama and other Democrats about as direct as it can be. Obama believes, by all available evidence, that the government in Washington, D.C., should be consequential -- that it should be used to do good for the citizens of the country.

Indeed, our data from last fall show that Americans are split on the issue of what role the government should take. About as many say that government should do everything it can to improve the life of its citizens as say government should do only the bare minimum. Thus, Perry’s insistence on government doing as little as possible is going to run into some opposition if he wins his party’s nomination. A lot of Americans feel that the government -- inept though it may be in their view -- does have a role to play in improving the lot of the citizens of the country.

The appropriate role of government will be the central issue of the presidential race.

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