A strong presence in Iowa has lifted Mitt Romney over his Republican rivals in overall support and ratings of personal attributes alike. But his support is not strong, and likely caucus-goers overall are less than thrilled with their choice of candidates.
Only 19 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say they're "very satisfied" with their choices in the presidential contest. By contrast 53 percent are "very satisfied" -- almost three times as many -- on the Democratic side.
The lack of Republican enthusiasm in Iowa plays out in several ways. If it holds 'til caucus day, it'd mean lower turnout; Iowans currently are less likely to say they'll attend a Republican caucus than a Democratic one. Low turnout could hurt candidates who do less well in the conservative Republican base, notably Rudy Giuliani.
But the lack of a spark also means there's plenty of room for preferences in Iowa to shift. Just 41 percent of Romney's backers support him "strongly," and across all the Republican candidates, strong support runs to just 46 percent. Strong support on the Democratic side in Iowa is 10 points higher, peaking at 60 percent for Hillary Clinton.
As things stand, 26 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers support Romney, with Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- who's not yet formally announced his candidacy, or campaigned in the state -- at 14 and 13 percent, respectively. John McCain and Mike Huckabee have eight percent support apiece.
Recalculating on the basis of second choice brings Romney and Giuliani closer -- to 20 and 18 percent, respectively -- with Thompson unchanged at 13 percent.
ABC News, in conjunction with WOI-TV in Des Moines, is sponsoring two candidate debates in Iowa -- one among the Republican candidates this morning, and another among the Democrats on Aug. 19. An analysis of poll results among likely Democratic caucus-goers was released Friday (see http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3441459&page=1).
BEEN THERE -- Romney's support in Iowa is considerably better than his eight percent -- fourth, behind Giuliani, McCain and Thompson -- in the last national ABC/Post poll. The reason seems clear: Romney has worked Iowa, and worked it hard.
Among nine personal attributes tested in this poll, Romney's biggest advantage by far is as having "campaigned the hardest in Iowa." Forty-nine percent of Iowans say that best describes Romney, compared with single-digits for McCain (seven percent) and Giuliani (six percent), and almost no one for Thompson.
Even among people who don't support Romney, 42 percent say he's campaigned hardest, more than say so about anyone else. Among his own supporters that rises to 73 percent.
There's good basis for that perception: According to a count by The Washington Post, Romney has held 63 campaign events in Iowa this year, compared to 23 by McCain and 15 by Giuliani. And Giuliani, McCain and Fred Thompson all are bypassing next week's so-called "straw poll" in Ames.
Familiarity helps Romney with other attributes. Iowans are more apt to say Romney is closest to them on the issues (by 2-1 over the next closest, Giuliani), best understands their problems and is the most honest and trustworthy candidate in the field. Romney also runs competitively on the five other attributes tested in this poll, including strong leadership, experience and electability.
Guiliani's ratings, by contrast, are more varied: On one hand 31 percent say he has the best chance of getting elected (vs. 26 percent for Romney) and 26 percent call him the strongest leader (vs. Romney, 23 percent) -- but on the other, just seven percent rate him as the most honest and trustworthy, 12 percent say he's closest to them on issues, and 13 percent see him as best understanding their problems.
Thompson doesn't lead on any attributes, and doesn't even finish second on any of them by a statistically significant margin. That -- plus the fact that he's yet to campaign in Iowa -- makes it remarkable that he's running essentially even with Giuliani in the state.
One apparent reason, in addition to Romney's strong presence, is the softness of Giuliani's support. Among likely caucus-goers who support a candidate, but not strongly, Giuliani has 21 percent. But among people who back a candidate "strongly," Giuliani slides to 10 percent support.
GROUPS -- Preferences among groups help explain these dynamics. As is the case nationally, support for both Giuliani and McCain is notably weaker among conservatives than it is among moderate Republicans. And conservatives account for seven in 10 likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, compared with 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationally.
Thompson, apparently seen as a conservative alternative to Romney, has the opposite profile -- substantially better with conservatives than with moderates. There's a similar difference for another candidate, Huckabee; he receives support from 12 percent of conservative likely caucus-goers, compared with just two percent from moderates.
Giuliani, however, does not seem positioned to benefit if McCain, who's had fundraising trouble, were to leave the race. (He's said he won't.) Reallocating McCain's supporters in Iowa to their second choice leaves Romney with about the same lead over Giuliani, 28 percent to 15 percent. (Reallocating Fred Thompson's supporters, given that he's not officially in the race, also makes no substantive difference.)
Romney is a Mormon, and the idea of a Mormon president has drawn some compunctions in national ABC/Post polls, particularly among evangelicals and among women. In Iowa, though, he's supported about equally among evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants alike, as well as about equally by men and women.
INTENSITY -- The Republican campaign is lower-intensity than the Democrats' in measures other than enthusiasm. While 23 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say they've attended a campaign event, for instance, that compares with 40 percent of likely Democratic caucus attendees. Republicans also are slightly (seven or eight points) less likely to say they've gotten a campaign call or e-mails, or to have made a campaign contribution.
STRENGTH and WAR -- While they don't cut strongly to candidate support in the Republican race, there are issues in which Iowa likely Republican and likely Democratic caucus-goers vary very dramatically, reflecting some of the same divisions that appear nationally.
One is just what kind of a candidate they're looking for: Seventy percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say they're more interested in a candidate who has strength and experience than one who offers a new direction and new ideas. Just 39 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers agree.
The other, even wider gap, is on the war in Iraq. Eighty-one percent on the Republican side say it was worth fighting; 60 percent feel that way strongly. On the Democratic side, 87 percent say the war was not worth fighting -- and 79 percent feel strongly about it. That's a rift in public attitudes with which the next president, whatever his or her party, will likely be left to struggle.
TURNOUT and SAMPLING -- This survey was conducted by telephone calls to a random sample of Iowa homes with landline phone service. Adults identified as likely Republican caucus-goers accounted for seven percent of respondents; with an adult population of 2.2 million in Iowa, that projects to caucus turnout of 150,000. That's within sight of the highest previous turnout for a Republican caucus, 109,000 in 1988.
A more restrictive likely voter definition, winnowing down to lower turnout, makes no substantive difference in the results.
Other polls in Iowa have used registered voter lists rather than random-sample telephone calls; the approach can be more efficient in reaching people, but it also misses the substantial number of registered voters for whom there's no working phone number on the list. Some other Iowa polls also have a much higher number of "undecided" voters, a function of polling technique. The approach in ABC/Post polls is informed by the construct of the question -- whom people would support "if the caucus were being held today."
NEXT QUESTION -- Finally, this poll asked likely Republicans caucus-goers what one question they'd ask the candidates in a debate. Issues of top interest included the Iraq war (23 percent) and immigration (14 percent), alongside a variety of others -- e.g., social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and religion, 11 percent; health care, nine percent; and taxes, seven percent.
Likely Democratic caucus-goers, by contrast, were more heavily focused on just two issues, the war and health care.
Here are some of the questions from likely Republican caucus-goers, in their own words:
"Are you for more gun laws or do we have enough?"
"Will you stick it out in Iraq and will you fight the terrorists all over the world?"
"How are you going to help the troops when they return from Iraq?"
"How are you going to deal with the money shortage for Medicare and Social Security?"
"What is your position on dissolving the Federal Reserve?"
"How are you going to promote the change in energy uses and new energy sources and their products?"
"How does your religious faith affect your decisions?"
"What's your view on life and where life begins and how you should deal with how life ends?"
"How can you provide health care that's affordable for everyone?"
"When are you going to close the borders north and south?"
"When will you get the federal government out of our wallets?"
"What would you do with Jesus in your life today?"
"Are you honest?"
"Why would you want the job as president?"
"Why do we always give money to other countries when we have needs here?"
"Are you going to stand strong against the Muslim jihad?"
"What are you going to do to lower my taxes?"
"Are you going to follow through with what you say or are you going to just give promises and not fulfill them?"
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 26-31, 2007, among a random sample of 402 Iowan adults likely to vote in the 2008 Republican presidential caucus. The results have a five-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa. J. Ann Selzer, president of the public opinion research firm Selzer & Co. in Des Moines, consulted on project design.