Where the Presidential Nomination Races Are … and Where to Look

September 24, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

More than three months before the crucial Iowa caucuses, there are good reasons for treating national surveys with great skepticism and for placing greater weight on the candidates’ standing and strength in Iowa and New Hampshire.

First, the candidates actually have been campaigning for months in those two states — meeting voters and airing ads. Voters, therefore, are basing their decisions on more than name recognition. They have looked at and listened to the hopefuls and made informed judgments about each of the candidates as a potential nominee and a potential president.

Of course, Iowa and New Hampshire voters have changed their opinions quickly in the past as the caucuses and primary have approached, and they may do so again this cycle (see my April 5 column, “Already, Too Much of the ’08 Coverage Is Quite Misleading”). But you are likely to take note of that change sooner if you are looking at state polls rather than at national survey numbers.

Second, the Iowa and New Hampshire results will create a dynamic that will affect the media’s coverage of the race, as well as the public’s perception of the candidates and the nature of their choices. After Iowa and New Hampshire, there will be winners and losers, candidates who failed to meet expectations, and, probably, those who exceeded expectations.

Simply put, developments in the early tests will affect the attitudes of voters in late January and February primary and caucus states. Could a candidate jump-start a candidacy in early February? Possibly, but certainly only if the January contests break just right.

If polls are snapshots, why are the national ones badly out of focus?

National polling currently includes too many respondents from states where no TV advertising has been aired and where the candidates have barely set foot. Respondents in those states aren’t paying close attention to the races and are basing their responses primarily on name recognition or general impressions. That is why celebrity candidates run best in national surveys.

If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) wins the Iowa caucuses, as many expect, he’ll become a hot political property for the media, which should boost his national standing and prospects, even though he now runs a distant fourth in national polling.

In fact, given Romney’s strong showings currently in Iowa and New Hampshire, his prospects for the Republican nomination currently are as good as or better than former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s or former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (Tenn.).

One veteran Iowa Democrat who is deeply involved in his party’s caucuses thinks that the GOP die already is cast. “Romney will be the Republican nominee,” the insider said. “He has the best organization by far in Iowa. Nobody else comes close. The second-best Republican organization in the state probably is [Mike] Huckabee’s. Rudy’s got nothing in the state. Neither does Fred Thompson.”

Winning Iowa certainly wouldn’t guarantee Romney his party’s nomination. Ronald Reagan was nosed out by George H.W. Bush in the caucuses in 1980 yet won New Hampshire and the GOP nomination. Eight years later, George H.W. Bush replicated Reagan’s path.

Still, Romney’s early strength in New Hampshire, combined with a probable win in Iowa and the likelihood that independents in the Granite State will both vote in significant numbers in the Democratic race and not unite behind a single GOP hopeful (as they did in 2000, when they backed Arizona Sen. John McCain), make the former Massachusetts governor the frontrunner in the nation’s first primary, at least at this point.

Romney’s opponents have yet to launch their inevitable flip-flopper attacks on him, and we don’t yet know how those attacks will affect his candidacy. But if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney surely will be the frontrunner in the Republican race. Given that, he should be included in the list of GOP frontrunners, even now.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) lead in the national polls could crumble quickly if she places second or third in Iowa. Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) are currently bunched together in the Hawkeye State, and anything could happen in the Democrats’ caucuses.

Clinton’s resources, experience, national political organization and, yes, gender give her an advantage in the race for the Democratic nomination. Those factors, as well as the fact that she is widely known, make it reasonable to call her a narrow favorite for her party’s nomination. But the national poll numbers greatly exaggerate her current standing in the Democratic race.

I’m not suggesting that national poll numbers are irrelevant. They do reflect national name recognition and the initial standing of the candidates. But so many important developments will occur before voters in Florida, California or Illinois get to cast their primary votes — developments that will color the public’s perception of the two presidential races — that the national numbers, as well as poll numbers in later states, have little predictive value now.

National numbers simply don’t deserve anything close to the attention that they are receiving in the national media, and particularly on TV. If you really want to know how Romney and Clinton are doing, keep your eye on Iowa and New Hampshire.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 20, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.