A National Race Playing Out State by State

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Jan 23, 2012 9:30am

I often have written of many myths and fictions that get adopted in politics and the discussion of campaigns. Another one has recently developed, and it has to do with impact of television ads and specific state campaign activities.

Here’s the myth: Newt Gingrich took a huge fall in Iowa because of all the television ads run against him by the other campaigns and super PACs, and he came back in South Carolina because of the ads run on his behalf against Mitt Romney.

The truth is that while campaign activities have some importance and minor effects, this is a national race that plays out state by state. And while there are individual differences in the demographics and voter preferences in each state and styles of the candidates and campaigns have differing effect in each state, the movement in this race is really much more tied to a national narrative and conversation.

In nearly all polling at the beginning of December, Gingrich had developed a roughly 12- point national lead. By the time the Iowa caucus was held in January, this large national lead had turned into a 10-point gap between Gingrich and Romney – thus a 22-point national swing.

In the polling at the same time in December in Iowa when Gingrich was riding a national wave, he was ahead of Romney by ten points.  On caucus night in Iowa, Gingrich finished behind Romney and Rick Santorum by 11 points.  So there was a 21-point rough swing in Iowa – matching the national movement almost identically.

As the campaign moved from New Hampshire, where Romney received a big bump of momentum from his victory (the much more important effect of state caucuses or primaries is there impact on coverage and momentum nationally), he held a 24-point national lead in Gallup daily tracking. By the time of the South Carolina primary, this lead had shrunk nearly completely to a mere five-point Romney national lead – a 19-point shift in the country.

In looking at South Carolina in the same time frame, Romney was ahead in South Carolina after the New Hampshire primary by about 10 points.  He ended up losing the first southern state primary by 12 points to Gingrich –  a 22-point shift in South Carolina thus very close to the national change.

As you can see from the above data, this race, especially between two well-known national players like Romney and Gingrich, is much more about the conversation and discussion and sentiments going on across the country than it is about the level of ad spending and resource allocation in any given state.

I am not saying there is no campaign effect (Santorum’s success in Iowa had much to do with his constant campaigning there and not television ads), but that the importance in this race is who best creates and augments a national narrative and then effectively manages this in the state-by-state nomination contest.

What does that tell us about Florida and the days ahead?  First, in the polling you will see very soon, Romney’s Florida lead will have evaporated completely because of the national movement happening. Second, in order for Romney to come back and win Florida, he should not be relying on television ads in that state to do his work. He needs to change the national narrative and conversation in his favor. And the best way to do this, as we have seen, is through the debates coming this week.  If Romney doesn’t perform better in the debates and change the momentum nationally that is in Gingrich’s favor at this point, then the endorsements, television ads and organization he has in Florida don’t matter.  Romney needs to move the nation before he can move Florida.

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