Campaign Clock Is Ticking
The holiday season and a slew of major news and cultural events will be competing for voters’ attention as candidates prepare for the first round of voting in the 2016 primary season.
With less than two months until the Iowa caucuses, the campaigns are aware the clock is ticking.
Gov. Mike Huckabee’s campaign, for example, polled 5,000 Iowa Republicans last week on their candidate preference. But the results were anything but clear: Roughly 75 percent of respondents said they had not decided which candidate to support. Of those, another 58 percent couldn’t even name a likely favorite.
“We’re a ways off from figuring this out,” said Huckabee spokesman Hogan Gidley.
But in fact, voters in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and the candidates courting them, have very little time left to figure everything out. Of the 45 days until the Iowa caucuses, two weeks will soon be gobbled up by the holiday season. Some lesser distractions will follow, including football playoffs and the opening of the new “Star Wars” film.
Come January – only one month before voting begins – the GOP candidates will have two debates before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. But they will be competing for attention with other events, such as President Obama’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 12 and the NFL playoffs leading into the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, just two days before the New Hampshire primary.
Then there are the unpredictable factors, such as the weather (if Iowa or New Hampshire or both see major snow storms it will put a damper on the door-to-door campaigning voters there love); a terrorist attack here or abroad; or another shooting – all events that could eat into valuable media time and turn the conversation to the topic of the day.
In any year, the final weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire can be among the wildest and most unpredictable of the election. But this year, a crowded field and a fragile top tier of candidates could create conditions for an even more peculiar lead-up to the primaries than usual, foretelling six weeks of breakneck campaigning to come as the contenders race toward an uncertain finish line.
“In the coming weeks, national polls will continue to fluctuate dramatically,” Carly Fiorina wrote Wednesday in an email to supporters. “Frontrunners will stumble. Dark horses will rise. We see that in every single election in the final weeks before the first primaries.”
There are obvious precedents in recent Republican presidential primaries for exciting, unexpected conclusions in the early states — but few that did not begin to percolate prior to December.
Huckabee’s victory in Iowa in 2008 is remembered as an unlikely triumph over the frontrunner Mitt Romney. But by early December 2007 Huckabee led the field; a Dec. 1 Des Moines Register poll that year showed him with 29 percent and Romney at 24 percent.
That same election cycle, John McCain took Republicans by surprise when he turbocharged his underdog bid to win the New Hampshire primary. However, by this time, McCain was firmly within striking distance of Romney: a December 2007 Marist poll showed him tied for second place with Rudy Giuliani at 17 percent, with Romney at 29 percent.
Of course, there have also been upsets that have truly been that: unforeseen until the very last minute.
At the end of 2011, Rick Santorum was scarcely in the conversation in Iowa: A poll by CBS News and The New York Times at that stage showed Santorum buried deep at sixth among seven candidates, with just 4 percent. One month later, he would best Mitt Romney in the caucuses by a slim margin – albeit a result that was announced too late (due to vote counting problems) to help Santorum.
This time, Iowa and New Hampshire both remain firmly in play at this stage, with a few candidates in each state well positioned to compete for first or second place.
In Iowa, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are vying for the top slot with 25 percent and 26 percent, respectively, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Meanwhile, Trump leads in New Hampshire by a wide margin with 28.7 percent, but Chris Christie and Marco Rubio are both in double digits and have been on the rise.
For these candidates, it might be that the true primary has yet to begin.
“I think the race really starts Jan. 2,” said Stuart Stevens, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney. “Voters haven't paid much attention yet. History tells us wild movements are more the norm than not.”
But for most candidates in the middle and lower tiers, the deadline pressure to show signs of life is mounting.
Ben Carson’s campaign manager Barry Bennett told the Columbus Dispatch earlier this month that “something exciting has got to happen between now and Jan. 1, or you start running out of scenarios on how this will end well.” Bennett was referring specifically to Gov. John Kasich — but his assessment could easily have applied to a number of low-polling candidates.
Often, something exciting does not happen. Instead, the final weeks leading up to the primaries are normally devoted to unglamorous, grassroots work: recruiting precinct captains in Iowa, for example, or holding town hall meetings in New Hampshire, while racking up endorsements from influential activists and blanketing the airwaves with ads.
Television ads, in particular, are traditionally a key component of the final primary push — but in this election cycle, they don't seem to be helping.
More than 44,000 ads have aired thus far in the GOP race, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, compared to the 30,000 ads that had aired by mid-December in 2011. But, the Wall Street Journal reported, the uptick in ads hasn't been reflected in the polls. Trump’s and Cruz’s campaigns have aired fewer ads than most, but are leading in the polls; meanwhile, Jeb Bush languishes in fifth place, according to the RCP average of polls, even as his campaign and the super PAC supporting him have blanketed the airwaves.
Still, widespread indecision among voters, as Huckabee’s campaign observed in its internal polling, has fanned many candidates’ hopes for a late surge in the polls.
“In the last (election), 68 percent of Republican primary voters said they didn’t decide until the last two weeks,” Christie told RCP last month in New Hampshire.
“One thing I can tell you,” Lindsey Graham echoed in an interview last month. “By the time (the New Hampshire primary) comes, this thing will change three times.”
In this election, however, past has scarcely been prologue — and Trump’s dominance, in particular, has been the Hanukkah oil of the Republican primary, lasting longer than prognosticators forecast. His final six weeks of pre-primary campaigning will likely also shred the playbook: In Arizona on Wednesday, Trump hosted a rally in an airplane hangar, with his private airplane as a backdrop — a scene more reminiscent of a general election campaign event than one preceding the primary.
Could this unorthodox race also lack wild swings in the final stretch before voting? It is quite possible. But Huckabee’s campaign, at least, thinks and hopes not.
It’s not quite comparing “apples to apples,” Gidley mused, “but it’s definitely fruit to fruit. It’s still the same voters.”