Five shocking findings from Public Policy Polling's latest Iowa survey

Public Policy Polling released its latest Iowa caucus numbers yesterday. As other recent surveys of Iowa Democrats have shown, Hillary Clinton still leads by a considerable margin, but her lead has shrunk since the spring, as Iowans have learned more about other contenders. PPP now has Clinton at 52 percent support among "usual Democratic primary voters," while Bernie Sanders has 25 percent, Martin O'Malley 7 percent, Jim Webb 3 percent, and Lincoln Chafee 1 percent.

On the GOP side, Donald Trump leads among "usual Republican primary voters" with 19 percent, followed by Ben Carson and Scott Walker (12 percent each), Jeb Bush (11 percent), Carly Fiorina (10 percent), Ted Cruz (9 percent), Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio (6 percent each), John Kasich and Rand Paul (3 percent each), Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum (2 percent each), Chris Christie (1 percent), and Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki (less than 1 percent).

Dropping to 3 percent earned Paul the "biggest loser" title from Public Policy Polling's Tom Jensen and was the only topline result that shocked me. Things got way more interesting in the cross-tabs. I enclose below the five findings that struck me most.

As a bonus, I added at the end of this post completely unsurprising numbers from PPP's survey of registered Iowa voters: Governor Terry Branstad is underwater with 42 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval. Last month's high-profile line-item vetoes are even less popular.

1. Rand Paul's collapse.

Given the strong organization Ron Paul's presidential campaign built in Iowa, I never expected to see Rand Paul below 10 percent, let alone below 5 percent, in any survey of Iowa Republicans this year. If this poll is accurate, Paul's main problem isn't the fractured field of 17 candidates. It's his poor favorability ratings. PPP's Jensen commented in the polling memo,

The biggest loser in the poll is Rand Paul. He now has a negative favorability rating at 31/45. That gives him the worst numbers of anyone in the field, outdistancing even Chris Christie on the unpopularity front. Paul's 3% standing represents a drop all the way down from 10% in April. Paul's been foundering anyway, and his campaign's ties to the Kent Sorenson mess are probably making things particularly bad for him in Iowa.

The "Kent Sorenson mess" refers to indictments of three former Ron Paul presidential campaign operatives in connection with illegal concealed payments to then State Senator Sorenson. He received money in exchange for changing his allegiance from Michele Bachmann to Paul less than a week before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Sorenson later was pressured to resign from the state legislature and last year pled guilty to one count of causing a federal campaign committee to falsely report its expenditures to the Federal Election Commission and one count of obstruction of justice. Because he has been cooperating with federal investigators, Sorenson has not yet been sentenced.

Two of the people recently indicted have been running a super-PAC supporting Paul's presidential bid.

Aside from the Sorenson entanglement, Paul's campaign has raised less money than several other GOP presidential candidates and hasn't been gaining traction or grabbing much media attention lately.

Paul has visited Iowa lots of times in recent years but usually does his own thing. He skipped this year's four biggest "cattle calls": Steve King's Iowa Freedom Summit in January, Bruce Rastetter's Ag Summit in March, Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride in June, and the FAMiLY Leader's Family Leadership Summit in July.

Even worse, as Jason Winter described at Iowa Starting Line, Paul puts a strange distance between himself and would-be caucus-goers at his solo events. Why he wouldn't take audience questions in small venues is beyond my understanding. If it's a time constraint problem, his campaign is over-scheduling him. Iowans like and expect to interact with the candidates.

2. Trump leads, Huckabee in fifth place among evangelicals.

I have to agree with Ryan Anthony: the funniest statistic from PPP's latest Iowa poll is that Trump leads among self-identified evangelicals. The philandering, three-times-married guy who speaks crudely about women and said he has never asked God for forgiveness has 18 percent support among evangelical GOP respondents, almost equal to his 19 percent among non-evangelicals. Go figure.

Granted, margins of error are higher for sub-groups in a poll sample than for the overall survey. Still, I would never have guessed Trump would play so well with that group of Republicans.

Meanwhile, the former pastor Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa caucuses on the strength of his support among social conservatives. PPP's survey suggests that he is still well-liked among Republicans here (64 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable). Yet he is the first choice of only 9 percent of self-identified evangelicals in the sample, behind Trump (18 percent), Carson (16 percent), Cruz (12 percent), and Walker (11 percent).

3. Trump leads, Rubio in sixth place among respondents who lean toward nominating the most electable candidate.

I appreciate that PPP surveys ask Republicans whether they are "more concerned with having the candidate who is the most conservative on the issues" or "more concerned with having the candidate who has the best chance of beating a Democrat in the general election." As you'd expect, Ted Cruz does a lot better (second only to Trump) among Iowa respondents in the "most conservative on the issues" crowd than among those who want to nominate someone electable.

But check out the candidate preferences of Iowa respondents who lean toward a candidate "who has the best chance of beating a Democrat in the general election": Trump is at 16 percent, Bush and Walker tie at 14 percent, Carson is at 13 percent (which itself is odd), Fiorina is at 11 percent (probably helped by her strong "Happy Hour" debate performance and lots of televised chatter about it).

Finally, we get to Rubio at 8 percent among Iowa Republicans who care more about nominating someone electable. For months, including after last Thursday's debate, Rubio has been the tv pundits' darling: a great talker, the total package for the general election, the guy who would present the sharpest contrast to Hillary Clinton, the one who can repair some of the damage to the GOP brand among Latino voters.

I've never understood the big fuss about Rubio. He doesn't handle tough questions well in interviews, and when he is speaking fluidly, as during the debate, he comes across as rehearsed and fake to me. I haven't seen him in person yet, but Jason Winter has, and he walked away from that Sioux City event wondering, "what in the heck do people see in Marco Rubio???"

4. Kasich polling as well or better than five candidates who have spent much more time on retail politics in Iowa.

Eric Appleman's Democracy in Action website maintains a comprehensive record of candidate visits to early presidential nominating states. This page shows Republican candidate trips to Iowa from 2013 through 2015, as well as how many days each contender spent here. The 2012 caucus winner Santorum and Perry have each visited Iowa 19 times during that period; Santorum's spent 39 days in the state, Perry 38. Jindal's been here 17 times, spending all or part of 29 days in Iowa. Christie has visited Iowa 11 times since 2013, spending 14 days here. Paul's been here 12 times, for 20 days.

Kasich has only been here twice, for one day each time. Yet he polls at 3 percent--not setting the world on fire, but the same level of support as Paul, and a bit higher than Perry, Santorum, Jindal, and Christie. The difference between Kasich and the others is smaller than the margin of error for this poll, so he may not really be ahead of those candidates. I'll be curious to see whether he gains any ground in Iowa. He's been moving up in the New Hampshire polls, partly because his super-PAC has spent $2.9 million already on advertising in that state.

5. No love for Rick Santorum.

"Shocking" may be the wrong word, but the poor poll numbers for the 2012 Iowa caucuses winner are striking. Although I disagree with Santorum on most issues, I've long felt Republicans need to hear his message about appealing to working-class voters. In contrast, the Iowa GOP base prefers not to hear those inconvenient truths. Santorum has been working hard this year, but his solo campaign events have generally not been as well-attended as those for fresher faces in the field.

He's been polling in the low single digits all year, forcing him into the "Happy Hour" debate last week. Not only is he at 2 percent in PPP's latest Iowa survey, he is the first choice of just 4 percent of evangelicals. Though Santorum is Catholic, he did very well among evangelicals in the 2012 caucuses and picked up the coveted Bob Vander Plaats endorsement.

To make matters worse for Santorum, he can't keep pace with his rivals on fundraising. He lost most of his top Iowa staffers in recent weeks, and he has no well-funded outside group ready to help him. Nick Ryan, who ran the pro-Santorum super-PAC during the last election cycle, committed to Huckabee in April. It's hard to see a path for Santorum to make it back into the top tier. Even if some of the current leaders falter, the other first-time presidential candidates in the very large field are more likely to move up.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- As promised, here's an excerpt from PPP's memo about a survey of 1,500 registered Iowa voters between August 7 and 9 (margin of error, plus or minus 2.5 percent).

Terry Branstad is not terribly popular right now, with 42% of voters approving of him to 47% who disapprove. Voters in the state are pretty unhappy with several of Branstad's recent actions. Only 34% approve of his recent veto of funding for the major universities in the state, compared to 49% opposed to that action. There's even less support for his recent veto of funding for K12 education in the state- that meets with 29% support and 57% opposition. But the most unpopular recent action of all is his veto of the bipartisan plan to keep open 2 of Iowa's 4 mental health institutions. Just 20% of voters support him on that issue to 63% who are opposed, and on that one even Republicans are opposed to his action with only 37% in favor of and 42% against it.

Branstad is unlikely to appear on an Iowa ballot again, so the political fallout from his line-item vetoes may not mean much to him. I still believe it was a mistake for Iowa House and Senate Republicans not to override the vetoes. A special legislative session would have been an easy way to take the issue off the table for next year's statehouse campaigns.

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