Two polls suggest Huckabee's the one to beat in Iowa

Two polls released this week suggest that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would be the front-runner in Iowa if he runs for president in 2012. Poll details and some speculation are after the jump.

Neighborhood Research surveyed 556 Iowa Republicans who voted in the 2010 primary and said they would definitely or very likely participate in the 2012 caucuses. Toplines for first choice, second choice and name identification are here. Some 24 percent of respondents named Huckabee as their first choice. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was the first choice of 19 percent, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was third with 11 percent. The poll of has a margin of error is plus or minus 4.1 percent. No other candidate was named by even 5 percent of respondents as a first choice.

James Q. Lynch posted the Neighborhood Research polling memo here. It suggests the Republican field is “wide open.” Huckabee has the best ratio of favorable to unfavorable ratings among likely caucus-goers, while Romney “converts a higher percentage of his favorables into votes” than the others. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul “have good favorables, but both have a fatigue level that’s stopping them from converting those favorables into votes.” Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is way behind on first choices with just 4 percent, but he “has made a positive first impression” on Iowa Republicans. In fact, Rich Shaftan of Neighborhood Research writes that Pawlenty “is the man to watch here and could be a sleeper.”

I tend to see Pawlenty as this cycle’s Tommy Thompson (a well-regarded Republican governor who never caught fire with Iowa caucus-goers), but if some of the bigger names don’t run, he could become a “stop Romney” or a “stop Huckabee” candidate.

Public Policy Polling surveyed Iowa Republicans this month and found a bigger lead for Huckabee:

Huckabee leads there with 30% to 18% for Mitt Romney, 15% for Sarah Palin, 13% for Newt Gingrich, 6% for Ron Paul, 4% for Tim Pawlenty, 3% for John Thune, and 1% for Mitch Daniels.

The key to Huckabee’s success is the ability to unite the disparate ideological factions of the Republican Party. 31% of voters think the party’s too liberal and with them Huckabee has a 26-21 lead over Gingrich, with Palin a little surprisingly coming in further back at 16%. 48% are comfortable with where the party is ideologically and they go for Huckabee too, by a 33-23 margin over Romney. Huckabee comes in a close second behind Romney with the small group of voters who think the party’s too conservative, 27-23.

In addition to coming out first on the first choice question, Huckabee would also seem to have the most room to grow his support in Iowa. 19% say he’s their second choice to 13% for Palin, 12% for Gingrich, and just 9% for Romney. If any of the other first tier candidates were to end up not running Huckabee would be the beneficiary. Among Gingrich voters he’s the second choice by a 31-14 margin over Romney. Among Palin voters he’s the second choice by a 42-18 margin over Gingrich. And among Romney voters he’s the second choice by a 29-19 margin over Gingrich. The big winner if Huckabee doesn’t end up making the race would be Palin- she’s the second choice of 26% of his voters followed by 16% for Romney.

I would expect Romney’s support to fall in Iowa, because he’s unlikely to devote as many resources to campaigning here as he did in 2007. (His path to the nomination depends on a victory in New Hampshire, not Iowa.) Also, Republican caucus-goers are going to learn a lot in the coming year about how much “Obamacare” resembles “Romneycare” in Massachusetts. Palin will struggle to overcome concerns about her electability, in my view.

On the other hand, PPP’s Tom Jensen also see a wide-open race:

with the exception of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin voters in the state don’t really know any of the new folks who they may be able to choose from in 2012 very well.

John Thune, Mitch Daniels, and Mike Pence could all make a strong impact in Iowa as fresh Midwestern faces if they end up getting into the race. But for now it’s pretty much impossible to measure their potential impact because each is known to fewer than 30% of Republican voters in the state. Folks like Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Haley Barbour are all better known but they still fall under 50% with an opinion about them. […] it’s also quite possible that one of these folks from further out in the pack who isn’t very well known right now will catch fire and have a very strong impact on the race.

An August 2010 poll commissioned by The Iowa Republican blog showed Huckabee leading the Republican field 22 percent to Mitt Romney’s 19 percent. Newt Gingrich received 14 percent, Sarah Palin 11 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul 5 percent, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and South Dakota Sen. John Thune 1 percent each.

I’m skeptical that Huckabee will run for president. The business wing of the GOP despises him for not being anti-union enough as governor. He has supported legislation in the past to give children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, although he spoke out against the version of the DREAM Act considered in the last Congress. He also commuted the sentence of a convict who later committee murder in another state. To run for president, he would have to give up his lucrative gig at the Fox network, and why do that when he’s building himself a $3 million home in Florida?

Share any thoughts about the Republican presidential race in this thread. Several potential candidates are coming to Iowa this month. Representative Michele Bachmann, a close ideological ally of Representative Steve King, will headline an Iowans for Tax Relief event in Des Moines on January 21. Gingrich will address the Iowa Renewable Fuel Association’s annual summit in Des Moines on January 25. Pawlenty will promote his new book in central Iowa on January 30 and 31.

I find it hard to believe Bachmann would run for president, but there could be a “tea party” niche for her if Sarah Palin opts out of the race. Bachmann’s PAC made most of its donations last year to candidates and PACs in Iowa.

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