CEDAR RAPIDS — With fewer than 50 days until Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses, the Republican presidential race appears to be up for grabs based on the results of an Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll of likely caucusgoers.
“That’s more the story than who’s ahead,” said Jim McCormick, chairman of the ISU Political Science Department, who coordinated the poll.
“The number of people who are firmly committed to a candidate is really only 16.5 percent,” McCormick said. “A majority of them, 52-plus, are undecided and 30 percent are sort of leaning toward one candidate.”
Herman Cain leads the field with the support of 24.5 percent of 1,256 registered Iowa voters polled. Texas Rep. Ron Paul follows with 20.4 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is third at 16.3 percent.
“Can’t decide” polled 8.1 percent — more than Texas Gov. Rick Perry (7.9 percent), Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman (7.6 percent), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (4.8 percent) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (4.7 percent). Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has not campaigned in Iowa, received no support. “Other” polled 5.8 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent.
“My takeaway from these results is that voters are still really unsure of whom they will support,” said Dave Peterson, interim director of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at ISU and associate professor of political science, who also assisted with the poll. “Over half of the people are still trying to decide, and another third are merely leaning toward a candidate. When asked, people will express a preference for one candidate but that they will also admit that this is a weak attitude.”
The poll was compiled through phone interviews Nov. 1-13 and surveyed 979 registered Republicans and 277 registered independents. Of those polled, 377 (30 percent) stated that they definitely or probably would attend the Republican caucus Jan. 3.
Two other important takeaways from the poll, McCormick said, are Cain’s popularity among likely GOP caucus-goers — including women — despite recent allegations of sexual harassment and an apparent decline in the impact of traditional retail politics.
News of the sexual harassment claims was breaking as the poll was being conducted.
“The maintenance of his support seems quite remarkable,” McCormick said.
The fact Cain and Romney are top-tier candidate despite infrequent visits suggests to McCormick “that retail politics — typically a hallmark of Iowa — is not the way the caucuses are going to be decided this year.”
Cain has visited 25 times but just twice since his fifth-place finish in the August Republican straw poll. Romney has visited a half dozen times.
“Contrast that with Santorum, who visited all 99 counties, and Bachmann, who repeatedly talks about being born in Iowa and has spent a lot of time here, and they’re down in the single-digit percentages,” McCormick said.
Romney has a lot of “holdover” support, according to University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle, and Cain’s number may not reflect the number of visits to Iowa so much as it’s his turn at the top of the leaderboard. The GOP campaign has been marked by “surge and fade” of Bachmann, then Perry, Cain and now Gingrich, he said.
While he doesn’t disagree with McCormick’s analysis, Hagle cautions that because the race is so volatile that all polls have to be taken with a grain of salt.
The timing of the polling may not have fully captured the reaction to the allegations against Cain or his trouble answering a question about President Obama’s handling of Libya as well as Gingrich’s apparent surge of support in recent days, Hagle said.
The results suggest the tea party is likely to have a strong effect on the caucuses. More than a quarter of likely caucus-goers identify themselves as part of the tea party movement. Nearly a third of them support Cain; 14 percent back Paul. Paul, Cain and Romney run neck-and-neck among non-tea party poll respondents.
Other key findings of the poll are:
• “Can’t Decide” (21.5 percent) was the most frequent second choice. Cain, Perry, Romney and Paul all had more than 10 percent support as respondents’ second choice.
• Most of the candidates have a small gender gap among supporters. Cain does much better among women than men as do Perry and Gingrich. Paul and Bachmann do better with men than with women.
• Cain has strong support across all income levels, particularly among those earning $100,000 a year or more. Among the least well off, Paul leads at around 41 percent. The wealthiest voters have the highest level of “undecideds.”
• There are sizable differences in the level of candidate support based on religious beliefs. Cain leads among three categories — Catholics, born-again Protestants and mainstream Protestants. Among those with no religious preference, Paul captured nearly 59 percent.
• Romney wins support across all educational levels. It rises with education level. Cain and Paul’s support is highest among those with either some college or a college degree.