Opinion: Cain's Flukey Win in Iowa Poll Says More About GOP Shuffling

The latest Iowa Poll has 23 percent of likely caucusgoers saying Herman Cain is their first choice, with Mitt Romney trailing with an indistinguishable 22 percent. Romney gets the vote of just 10 percent of those who say they definitely plan to vote in the caucuses, while Cain has a solid 27 percent. Cain also surpasses Romney among those who identify themselves as very conservative by more than 3 to 1.

Romney is the favorite of women, seniors, first-time caucusgoers and GOP moderates or liberals. He also leads among those whose minds are made up. Cain enjoys a five-point margin among men, the most conservative voters, tea party supporters, born-again Christians and those ages 35 to 54.

Alarming for Romney is the fact that half of likely caucusgoers think a “… representative of the core conservative base can win the White House in 2012. Only a third see a need to select a more moderate candidate with appeal to independents.” (Also to note: The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent).

I think we need to be very careful how we read this poll.

First, the margin of error is large and that means Romney could be ahead of Cain. There are two front-runners.

Second, “59 percent of likely caucus-goers say they could be persuaded to support another candidate.” That means Republicans are in fact still searching, meaning a more accurate headline would read and the headline should read, “Almost 60 percent of Iowa Republicans are not sure who they will support on caucus night.”

Texas Rep. Ron Paul came in third place with 12 percent of respondents an increase in support by five points since June. As we scrutinize these numbers we should be reminded that a June 2011 poll, Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann were the front-runners with 23 percent and 22 percent respectively. Herman Cain ranked third at 10 percent.

So the current poll headline could also read, “Mitt Romney Holds First Place in Iowa: Other contenders play musical chairs.”

The screaming headlines about Bachmann winning the Iowa straw poll last summer are just a faint memory as she tanks in Iowa now coming in at only eight percent.

Tied at seven percent are Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich whose campaign seems to be picking up (at least in South Carolina, according to latest news reports) and who has seen a surge in fundraising. Perry has a chunk of change and could invest it in Iowa. But, maybe he’s playing a southern strategy betting on South Carolina and Florida.

Trailing at five percentage points is Rick Santorum who has spent a lot of time in Iowa campaigning hard but not moving the needle. Bringing up the rear with one percent is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has seemingly isn't contending in Iowa off.

Interestingly, both Cain and Romney have largely neglected Iowa having visited only a few times to campaign and yet they are ahead. The poll also showed what I have been arguing for weeks. Herman Cain has sucked away born again Christians from Bachmann. And I believe Perry has taken away some of the Tea Party movement support from her.

Mitt Romney seems to suffer from a lack of “likeability,” which was Cain’s big plus. In the end that can be a significant factor and the trouble is you can’t do much about it. Romney also has a solid a large base of supporters from 2008, even though he has not campaigned a lot in Iowa in this cycle. Remember that the caucuses are a complicated technique for selecting delegates. TV commercials and an “air war” can move some voters but not as much as in a primary state such as New Hampshire.

There is a hard core of caucus attendees in each party and it is ONLY those folks that candidates have to impress and mobilize for a cold January night of trudging to their precinct. Again, this means that organization and even offering people rides to their precinct caucus - there are 1784 – is the key to victory.

Cain and Perry have almost no “ground troops,” i.e. no caucus organization, which could be a disadvantage on caucus night. The caucuses are an “infantry operation.” In the final analysis we must remember that the Iowa Caucuses are most important as a process for candidates to strut their stuff and also show their weaknesses.

The results of caucus night are exciting and they helped Barack Obama get legitimacy as a candidate who could attract support from non-minority voters. But they are a media event for the most part. The real delegate harvesting starts with the big, delegate rich states and with Super Tuesday.

We need to also remember that first, second, or even third place in the Iowa caucuses is good enough and, as my friend and astute political reporter David Yepsen says, gives a candidate one of the three “airline tickets out of Iowa” to New Hampshire and a potential nomination.

Steffen W. Schmidt is University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University and Chief Political Correspondent of Insider Iowa.