Almost all the big polls are now out, along with some important analysis. So let me dive right in.
There are clearly three tiers of candidates from the polls. The picture at the right from Gallup clearly points these tiers out. First is Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. They have similar likability, and in recent weeks, it appears that Rudy has taken support from McCain in the polls. The second is Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Both of these candidates appear to have relatively high "unfavorables" and even large numbers of Republicans who do not want them to be the nominee. And the third tier is people who no one has heard of. These are Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, etc.
Now, these differ from the conventional wisdom in Washington that places John McCain first, Rudy Giuliani second, and Mitt Romney third. Another poll found that Romney is leading about Republican National Committee members. So there is a clear disconnect between the opinions of "insiders" and the opinions of the masses. What is going on and how do the various campaigns understand these polls?
Starting with Rudy, there is clearly a lot of "good will" out there. People like him. People, on a certain level, want to support him. But they doubt he can win. Social conservatives point to his positions on gay rights, guns, and abortion. More broadly, cultural conservatives wonder if a guy from New York can really be the standard bearer. (My girlfriend, a moderate Southerner who doesn’t disagree with Rudy too much on issues says, "I just don’t believe he cares about or understands where I am from.") Party insiders also believe he can’t win.
Then you have John McCain. Movement conservatives of all stripes don’t trust him. A number of people in the party don’t like him. But it seems that rank-and-file Republicans don’t mind much. Remember: he is only a point or two behind Giuliani on favorable and even on unfavorable in virtually every poll. The LA Times poll of RNC members is indicative that the lobbying class and the party insider class does not like him that much. Ultimately, I think it is the lobbying and movement classes that are trying to kill McCain. That’s certainly what I see and hear in Washington.
Finally, Mitt Romney, who I admit to being no fan of. He is playing for the social conservative base, but getting in trouble because his past totally contradicts the future he paints. But the lobbying, business, insider class loves him. (that’s what the RNC poll means to me. Hypothesis: every professional lobbyist on the RNC will end up supporting Romney)
Right now, each of the candidates has a different problem. Rudy has to convince people that he can win. Despite his numbers, people still don’t believe it. Rudy’s job is to convert great polls into an organization. McCain has to keep trucking through. If he wins this, he wins a marathon. Romney’s job is much, much harder. Romney has to convince both voters and party people that he can beat both McCain and Rudy. But right now, McCain and Rudy are trading support. If Romney knifes McCain now, then support in the polls will go to Rudy. If he knifes Rudy, support will go to McCain. He needs to build up his good will with Republican voters before he starts attacking either Rudy or McCain, which is why he is buying ads. But if Romney waits for too long, donors will ask him where the beef is. In other words, Romney has to drive up his numbers and then tear down McCain and Rudy. Whereas, McCain just needs Rudy to collapse, in the way that party insiders expect he will.
There is plenty of time and opportunity for everyone to implement their plans. But the fundamentals are quite different for different people.