Sunday, March 11, 2007

McCain isn't out of the Republican Primaries yet

There has been a lot of talk recently that perhaps John McCain's bubble has burst with Rudy Guillani steadily building up a lead in the race to be the Republican presidential candidate. This post on Robert Novak's blog from a couple of days ago therefore caught my eye. It sets out how using push polling a pollster managed to come up with figures that had the almost unknown James Gilmore (a conservative former Governor of Virginia) leading the Iowa caucuses amongst likely voters.

The interest is not in the raw numbers themselves but the ease with which the pollsters pushed Gilmore to the front by pushing him as a true conservative and highlighting the weaknesses of the leading three candidates. This, Novak argues, proves what many pundits have been arguing for a long time; there is a huge hole for a credible conservative to fill in the GOP primary field.

However, for a conservative to come along the rails now would probably take one of the three main runners to completely implode, given how far in advance they appear to be in terms of infrastructure and money. So what was interesting for me was the fact that when the first who will you vote for question was asked (before the respondents were 'pushed') John McCain was leading. This despite the fact that all the momentum in recent polling appears to have been with Guilliani. Even more fascinating was what happened after the first round of pushing. The pollsters first attacked the main three candidates before re-asking the who will you vote for question (the first round of pushing), and then pushed the idea of Gilmore as a true conservative before asking the who will you vote for question again (the second round). The second round not surprisingly gave the headline of Gilmore leading. In the first, again no surprise, Guilliani and Romney fell back under the attack, but McCain actually increased his vote.

It was only by a within the margin 2%, but even so it may be a sign that once the primary campaign proper starts and the attack ads start flying McCain may stand up better than the other less well known candidates, (I know Guillani has good name recognition but the knock on him is that very few ordinary voters know about his record outside of 9/11 yet). It is possible that, as with Hilary Clinton, the voters already know John McCain and therefore his supporters have already discounted his weaknesses before choosing to support him. A strong base of support at this stage of the campaign is perhaps more useful than a higher level of soft support.

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