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Looking for the Iowa bounce

Recent polling in Iowa points to real trouble for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitt Romney. But will the same opponents nipping at their heels today remain their biggest threats in New Hampshire?
/ Source: National Journal

Recent polling in Iowa points to real trouble for and . Even so, will the same opponents nipping at their heels today remain their biggest threats five days later in New Hampshire?

Iowa has been a dogfight on the Democratic side for months, but it's now clear that while doesn't have a statistically significant lead in the polls, he's got the momentum. In the last six polls conducted in the state, Clinton averaged 27.2 percent compared with Obama's 27.5 percent and at 22.3 percent.

Ask folks on the ground in Iowa what's happening and they'll tell you that the investment Obama has made in the state -- both financially and in campaign time -- is paying off. Most insiders point to his strong performance at the Nov. 10 Jefferson-Jackson dinner as the catalyst for the surge in the state.

Earlier, it seemed that Clinton was the biggest beneficiary of Democrats' optimism for the upcoming election. After all, when you feel good about your party's chances, you aren't as hung up on getting the perfect candidate. The concerns Democrats had about Clinton (mostly that she's too polarizing to win) faded as they came off a strong 2006 election and saw strong national polling numbers for their party.

In an August 2006 survey [PDF], for example, the Cook Political Report found that 49 percent of Democratic voters were worried that Clinton couldn't win a general election and just 46 percent thought she'd have as good a chance as any Democrat to do so. But by November of this year [PDF], just 16 percent of Democrats said they were worried she couldn't win the presidency. Seventy-eight percent said she would have the same chances to win as any other Democratic candidate. When did Democrats start to move to the "she can win" column? Right after the 2006 midterm elections. In early November and December, 60 percent of Democrats said she could do it.

In Iowa, however, Democrats are saying that Clinton is both the most electable and the least likable. As such, there is a head vs. heart battle going on with Iowa voters. One Iowa Democrat interviewed on NPR summed it up best when he said he wanted a candidate "who would send chills up his spine." If spine-tingling is a key factor, Obama benefits. While I'm always dubious when voters admit to pollsters that they place more importance on electability than issues (it's like telling someone you value looks over substance in a spouse), the latest Pew Research Center/Associated Press poll did show a marked difference between the Iowa voter of four years ago and the Iowa voter of today. In 2003, according to Pew/AP pollsters, 40 percent of likely Iowa Democrats said it would be more important to choose a candidate who could defeat George W. Bush than one they agreed with most on the issues. Today, just 24 percent of Democrats view electability as more important.

In addition, we now have a new national poll (Gallup/USA Today) that shows Clinton dropping 9 points since mid-November, while her unfavorability rating has risen to 50 percent. Recent polling in New Hampshire shows her lead shrinking there as well.

Even so, Obama has not seen a corresponding rise. While Clinton has dropped 11 points (from 50 percent to 39 percent) since the beginning of November in Gallup/USA polling, Obama has gained just 3 points. And in New Hampshire, Obama's 22.5 percent average in the most recent polls is only a slight improvement from his October average of 21.8 percent.

What does this mean? It suggests that while voters may have rising doubts about Clinton, their concerns about Obama haven't been allayed. It also shows the importance of a crowded field to Clinton's chances. Could an Iowa win help Obama solidify the anyone-but-Clinton vote? Perhaps. But if the Clinton campaign is able to lure him into a fight (something he's been avoiding assiduously all week), he may be too banged up to be that unifying force.

Still, compare Obama to and one thing is quite clear -- the Illinois senator will have a lot more money to spend in New Hampshire than the former Arkansas governor. What's more, while Romney has been slumping in Iowa, he has actually been moving up in New Hampshire. Huckabee, meanwhile, has jumped 10 points since early November in the new Gallup/USA poll (from 6 percent to 16 percent), but is going nowhere in New Hampshire. The most recent polling in the Granite State shows Huckabee stuck in fourth place. The composition of the New Hampshire primary electorate (with fewer evangelicals and more tax-sensitive voters) is much less receptive to a Huckabee profile. And while Huckabee has to spread thin resources between Iowa and New Hampshire, (not a wealthy candidate either) is putting it all in the Granite State.

But what about that vaunted Iowa bounce? was in single digits at this point in '03, but he saw his stock rise in the immediate wake of his second-place Iowa finish. And Huckabee, like Edwards, can look forward to a Southern state primary on the immediate horizon. The most recent Pew/AP poll shows a total free-for-all in South Carolina, suggesting that events leading up to the state's Jan. 19 primary will have a serious impact. But where will Huckabee get an infusion of cash? Washington Post reporters Chris Cillizza and Matthew Mosk wrote in October that a third of Bush's Rangers and Pioneers from '04 hadn't yet contributed to an '08 candidate. Even so, will Huckabee's record on fiscal issues (something that will most certainly be pounded heavily by his opponents for the next month) turn them away? Huckabee, like all the GOP front-runners, has serious flaws. But unlike the rest of them, he lacks the money and campaign infrastructure to minimize his weaknesses.

Bottom line: Should both Obama and Huckabee win Iowa, Obama still seems a bigger threat to Clinton than Huckabee is to Romney.