December 4, 2007

GOP Race Unsettled in Politically Diverse Early States

Primary Preview: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina

Summary of Findings

Republican voter sentiment in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is highly fluid. Compared with Democratic voters, likely Republican voters in these three politically disparate states express less enthusiasm about their field of presidential candidates, and many Republicans voice only modest support for their choices.

Mike Huckabee runs even with Mitt Romney in Iowa, but the former Massachusetts governor holds a wide lead over all of his rivals in neighboring New Hampshire. There is no frontrunner in South Carolina, where Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson have about as much support as Romney, closely followed by John McCain and Huckabee.

Republican preferences in the early states are quite different from GOP opinions nationally. While Giuliani continues to draw the most support among likely Republican voters nationwide, he runs a distant third to Romney and Huckabee in Iowa, substantially behind Romney in New Hampshire, and is among three candidates vying for the lead in the wide open race in South Carolina.

The race for the Republican nomination is complicated by the different political terrain in each of these three primary states. Huckabee’s strong showing in Iowa is largely based on his support from white evangelical Protestants. The former Arkansas governor leads Romney by about two-to-one (40%-21%) — and Giuliani by an even greater margin — among white evangelical Protestants in Iowa.

But white evangelical Protestants constitute a much smaller share of the likely Republican electorate in New Hampshire than in Iowa (18% vs. 38% in Iowa). Although Huckabee runs much better among white evangelical Protestants than among non-evangelicals in New Hampshire (24% vs. 3%), his overall level of support there remains modest.

The likely Republican electorate in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary also includes the highest proportion of independents and the lowest share of self-described conservatives of the three early primary states. While Romney holds a substantial lead among Republicans (40% to 21% for Giuliani), his advantage among independents is narrower: Romney draws 32% among likely independent voters in New Hampshire, compared with 20% for Ron Paul, 18% for McCain, and 15% for Giuliani.

In South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary Jan. 19, white evangelical Protestants constitute more than half of likely Republican voters (53%). Huckabee runs better among evangelicals than non-evangelicals in South Carolina. But at this point voters in South Carolina are less engaged in the election than are voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Christian conservatives there may be less aware of the former Arkansas governor who has made a late surge in Iowa.

There are substantial policy disagreements, as well as demographic and religious differences, among the likely Republican electorates in these states. In New Hampshire, just 55% of likely Republican voters approve of President Bush’s job performance, compared with 72% of those in South Carolina and 80% of Iowa GOP voters. Fewer Republican voters in New Hampshire oppose gay marriage and a much greater proportion says abortion should be mostly legal than either in Iowa or South Carolina.

By contrast, Iowa Republicans take more conservative positions on environmental and tax policy than do Republican voters in the other early states. Fully half (50%) of likely Republican voters in Iowa’s caucuses believe that “stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy;” only about a third of Republican voters in New Hampshire (34%), and 37% of GOP voters in South Carolina agree that tougher environmental laws excessively burden the economy. Iowa Republican voters also are more somewhat supportive of retaining all of President Bush’s tax cuts than are Republican voters elsewhere.

The primary state survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in collaboration with the Associated Press, was conducted Nov. 7-25 among 264 voters likely to vote in the Jan. 3 Iowa Republican caucuses; 446 likely voters in New Hampshire’s Jan. 8 Republican primary; and 468 likely voters in South Carolina’s Jan. 19 Republican primary. In addition, a separate national survey was conducted among 448 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say they are likely to vote in a primary or caucus in their state.

The survey finds that Republican voters are less enthused about the quality of their party’s presidential candidates than are Democratic voters in the early primary states. In Iowa, where voters have had much greater exposure to the candidates than in the other early states, 73% of Republican voters rate the GOP field as good or excellent. By comparison, 87% of likely Democratic voters in Iowa rate their party’s candidates positively, and twice as many Iowa Democrats as Republicans rate the field as excellent (36% vs. 18%).

In addition, fewer Republican than Democratic voters strongly support their candidates. In Iowa, 57% of GOP voters strongly support their candidate, as do 49% in New Hampshire and just 44% in South Carolina. The relatively low level of strong support for candidates among Republican voters also underscores the fluidity of voter opinion in these states.

While two issues are dominant among Democratic voters in the trio of early primary states — the war in Iraq and health care — there is less agreement among Republican voters about the importance of major issues. It is clear, however, that immigration and terrorism rate as much greater concerns among Republican voters than among Democrats.

In Iowa, about as many likely Republican caucus-goers cite immigration as the issue they would most like the candidates to discuss as cite the war in Iraq (18% vs. 15%, respectively); nearly as many say terrorism (13%) and the economy (12%). The agenda differs slightly in the other two states, with the war mentioned most frequently. But immigration rates near the top of GOP voters’ issues agenda in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as nationally. By contrast, the Iraq war, health care and the economy far overshadow immigration among the concerns of Democratic voters.

At this point, no Republican candidate stands out as being best able to handle immigration. Romney holds a sizable advantage on immigration in New Hampshire (37% vs. 16% Giuliani), but a much narrower edge in Iowa, and no candidate stands out among South Carolina Republican voters as best able to deal with immigration.

In fact, none of the Republican candidates holds a consistent advantage on any issue across all three early primary states. In Iowa, Huckabee is most often mentioned as the candidate who can do the best job of “reflecting your views on social issues like abortion and gay rights;” 27% cite Huckabee in Iowa, which is about twice the percentage naming any other candidate. But in New Hampshire, 28% say Romney can do the best job on social issues, while just 9% name Huckabee.

Nationally, Giuliani is viewed as the candidate with the best chance of winning the general election (46% vs. 15% for McCain). He also is viewed as the most electable candidate by likely GOP voters in Iowa and South Carolina. However, this is not the case in New Hampshire, where about as many likely Republican voters say Romney has the best chance of winning as choose Giuliani (39% Romney vs. 35% Giuliani). In any event, far more Republican voters, both nationally and in the early states, say it is more important to choose a candidate who agrees with them on the issues rather than one who has the best chance of winning in November 2008.

There is no evidence that Giuliani is being hurt by his pro-choice stance on abortion in the early primary states. In all three early states, Giuliani runs about as well among those who are aware that he is pro-choice as he does among those who do not know this. Among Iowa Republican voters, 14% of those who know he is pro-choice, and 13% who do not, support Giuliani.
More Iowa Republicans are aware of Giuliani’s abortion position than are GOP voters elsewhere. Two-thirds of likely Republican voters in Iowa (66%) name Giuliani as the candidate who favors a women’s right to choose when it comes to abortion. By comparison, only about half of Republican voters nationwide (48%) — as well as 47% in South Carolina and 54% in New Hampshire — identified Giuliani as the pro-choice candidate.

However, the survey finds that 20% of likely Iowa Republican voters have ruled out the possibility of voting for Giuliani in the caucuses, which is greater than the percentage saying they would not vote for any other candidate. That is comparable to the proportion of Iowa Democratic voters who have ruled out voting for Hillary Clinton (18%).

The proportion of Iowa Republican voters saying they would absolutely not support Giuliani is greater than the proportion supporting him (20% vs. 14%). In Clinton’s case, however, many more Democratic voters support her than have ruled out the possibility of voting for her (31% vs. 18%).

Giuliani continues to lead the GOP field among likely Republican voters nationally. Yet his advantage has narrowed somewhat since earlier in the fall. Currently, 26% of all likely Republican voters support Giuliani, while 17% back John McCain and 13% each support Fred Thompson and Romney. In October, Giuliani held a 13-point lead over McCain among likely Republican voters nationwide.

Over the past few months, Huckabee has made striking gains in the national survey. Currently, 11% support Huckabee, roughly triple the number in September (4%).

The Iowa Republican Primary

While Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are running neck-and-neck for the lead among likely Republican caucus-goers, they appeal to starkly different constituencies. Most notably, Huckabee leads Romney by nearly two-to-one (40% vs. 21%) among white evangelical Protestants, who make up 38% of likely Republican voters. By comparison, Romney has a substantial lead among white mainline Protestants (31% vs. 14% for Huckabee) and among voters of other religious backgrounds (26% vs. 16%).

Romney’s strongest backing comes from wealthier voters in the state. Fully 35% of likely Republican voters with household incomes over $75,000 favor Romney, placing him well in front of the other candidates. Among those earning less than $75,000, 19% back Romney, while 29% back Huckabee.

There is also a gender gap among Iowa Republican voters. Romney holds a 31% to 22% lead over Huckabee among women, while the race is much tighter among men.

There is little to suggest that any candidate has a significant enthusiasm advantage. A slim majority of the backers of all the leading candidates consider themselves “strong” supporters, and when the sample is limited to the 44% of likely GOP caucus-goers who say they will “definitely” attend on Jan. 3, Romney and Huckabee remain tied for the lead (27% vs. 26%, respectively) with Giuliani and Thompson well behind (14% and 12%, respectively).

No single issue in the race stands out as especially important to Iowa voters. When asked what one issue they would most like to hear the candidates talk about, no issue was mentioned by more than one in five voters: 18% mentioned immigration, 15% cited Iraq, 13% terrorism, 12% the economy, and 10% health care. An additional 11% mentioned either moral values or religion, or a specific social issue such as abortion. Given this diversity of views, no candidate holds a clear advantage in terms of dealing with issues most important to voters.

When asked which candidate can do the best job of dealing with immigration, Romney is the choice of a 21% plurality of Iowa voters. However, four other Republican candidates get the nod on this issue from at least 10% of voters, including 13% who name Tom Tancredo (Tancredo is the first choice of just 3% of likely Iowa Republican caucus attendees.) Romney also leads the rest of the field as the candidate who can best deal with taxes, but only by a slim margin. Moreover, just 6% of Iowa Republican voters list the issue of taxes as the one they most want to hear about in this campaign.

Huckabee stands apart from the field when it comes to social issues. He is named by 27% of likely voters as best able to handle social issues like abortion and gay rights, far more than any other candidate. On the other hand, Huckabee is the choice of relatively few as best able to deal with foreign policy and security issues (11% say he is best able to handle Iraq, 11% Iran and 10% terrorism).

Despite trailing Romney and Huckabee in the horse race, Giuliani is named by a plurality of Iowa Republican voters as best able to deal with terrorism (26%) and Iran (22%), and he is in a virtual tie with Romney on Iraq (19% vs. 20%). And Giuliani is mentioned by fully 38% of Iowa voters as the candidate with the best chance of defeating a Democrat next November, though as noted earlier most voters say they prefer a candidate closest to them on the issues rather than the most electable candidate.

Overall, Romney leads the GOP field of candidates with 25% of the vote among likely caucus attendees, but is generally selected as the candidate best able to handle major issues by fewer than that. The same is largely true for Huckabee, who is backed by 24% of voters, but, aside from his strength on social issues, not seen as the strongest candidate on the issues. By contrast, 14% of Iowa Republican voters pick Giuliani as their favored candidate, but is seen as stronger by a larger share of voters on a number of issues, including Iraq, Iran and terrorism.

The New Hampshire Republican Primary

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney holds a substantial lead among likely New Hampshire primary voters. If the election were today 37% say they back Romney, nearly twice as many as the next highest candidate, Rudy Giuliani with 19%.

Yet unlike Iowa, where most Romney voters are strong supporters, only a minority of Romney’s supporters in New Hampshire says they back him strongly. This is characteristic of New Hampshire’s GOP electorate more broadly. In Iowa, 57% of voters with a candidate preference say they back that candidate strongly, compared with 49% in New Hampshire. Still, the proportion of Romney’s supporters who back him strongly is lower than for the other major candidates, and his lead is smaller among voters who are most highly engaged in the campaign.

Romney’s advantage is greatest among conservatives and Republicans in the state. He holds a smaller lead among independents who intend to vote in the Republican primary, who often play a key role in determining the outcome of the New Hampshire contest. One-in-five independents (20%) is backing Ron Paul, and a similar number (18%) support McCain, who won New Hampshire in 2000 with strong support from independent voters. Romney still leads among New Hampshire independents with 32% of their support, but this is well below the 40% he receives from Republican voters.

Romney also has a big lead among voters with no college education, while the race is tighter among college graduates.

The evangelical vote is smaller in New Hampshire than in most of the other early primary states; just 18% of Republican voters here are evangelicals. Romney leads among this group, despite the concerns expressed by some evangelicals regarding the fact that he is a Mormon, but his advantage over Huckabee is only seven points (31% vs. 24%). Romney has a strong lead among Catholic voters (48%, vs. 22% for Giuliani).

As in Iowa, and in contrast with Democratic voters in New Hampshire, no single issue stands out as most important to Republican voters. About one-fifth (22%) mention Iraq, 17% cite immigration, and 15% mention the economy as the issue they most want the candidates to discuss. Twelve percent cite health care, and 10% mention terrorism. Moral or religious issues are cited by only 1% of New Hampshire Republican primary voters as their top issue.

Pluralities of voters say that Mitt Romney is the candidate best able to deal with several of the domestic issues, including taxes (40% cite him), immigration (37%), and social issues (28%). But Giuliani and McCain exceed Romney on issues related to national security. McCain is the plurality choice on Iran (32%) and Iraq (31%), and Giuliani is picked by 30% as best able to handle terrorism (and McCain is second with 26%).

The South Carolina Republican Primary

Compared with Iowa and New Hampshire where one or two candidates stand out with substantial advantages, the race is much closer in South Carolina, where voter attention to the race is still fairly low. Five candidates have double-digit support. But illustrating the fluidity of the race there, none of the candidates enjoys the strong support of more than half of those who currently back them.

Roughly two-thirds of likely Republican voters in South Carolina (68%) describe themselves as conservative, and Thompson (20%) and Romney (19%) lead in this group. Giuliani has the support of 27% among moderate and liberal GOP primary voters.

Fred Thompson leads the field among men with 24% of the vote; he is trailed by Giuliani and Romney with 19% and 17%, respectively. But Thompson falls near the bottom of the list among women, with the support of just 11%.

Giuliani and Romney lead among voters with college experience, while Thompson has a plurality among those with no college education. Military veterans and their spouses do not differ much in vote choice from those with no military experience. But former prisoner-of-war John McCain actually does slightly better among non-veterans than among those in veteran households.

White evangelicals constitute a majority of likely Republican primary voters in the Palmetto state (53%) and currently divide their vote across five candidates, ranging from 19% for Thompson to 12% for Huckabee. Huckabee’s success in attracting evangelical voters in Iowa (where he currently has the support of 40%) suggests that South Carolina could be
a good state for him if he becomes better known. George W. Bush resurrected his campaign in this state in 2000 with a solid victory over John McCain in this state, and Bush’s support among religious conservatives was an important factor.

Policy Attitudes in Primary States

For the most part, Republican voters in the early primary states agree on major foreign policy and security issues. And on most of these issues, ranging from the war in Iraq to the use of torture against suspected terrorists, the views of Republican voters in the primary states are consistent with those of GOP voters nationally.

Republican voters in the three early primary states, like GOP voters nationally, overwhelmingly favor keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized: 81% of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers support a continued troop presence, as do 77% of Republican voters in New Hampshire, 73% of those in South Carolina, and 70% of likely Republican voters nationally.

There is a similar consensus that the greater concern is the United States will wait too long, rather than act too quickly, in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. In addition, nearly identical proportions of Republican voters nationally and in the three primary states believe that the use of torture against suspected terrorists is often or sometimes justified. Comparably large majorities also say that it is generally right for the government to monitor telephone and email communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties without first getting a court order.

On most of these national security and foreign policy issues, majorities of Democratic voters take the opposite position from the Republicans. Iran is an exception, however. While solid majorities of likely Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire say their greater concern is that the United States will act too quickly in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, Democratic voters nationally and those in South Carolina are more divided. Notably, about as many likely Democratic voters in South Carolina say their greater concern is that U.S. will wait too long, rather than too quickly, in acting on Iran (44% wait too long vs. 46% act too quickly).

Divided Over Bush

The Republican voters’ cohesion on foreign policy issues is absent in many other policy areas. GOP voters have substantial differences over domestic and social policies, and render sharply divergent evaluations of the president’s overall performance.

In New Hampshire, where independents constitute 37% of the likely GOP electorate — by far the highest proportion in the three primary states — just a modest majority (55%) approves of Bush’s job performance. Roughly twice as many likely GOP voters in New Hampshire disapprove of Bush as in Iowa or South Carolina (35% vs. 16%, 19%).

Despite the strong approval ratings for Bush among Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina, however, there is a widespread desire for a candidate who will take the country in a different direction rather than one who will continue Bush’s policies, Majorities of Republican voters in each of those states — as well as 60% of likely Republican voters nationally — say they prefer a Republican presidential candidate who will take the country in a different direction.

Still, an even greater percentage of likely voters in New Hampshire’s Republican primary favor a GOP candidate who will pursue a different course from Bush’s. Fully two-thirds of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire (66%) express this view, compared with 53% of likely Republican voters in Iowa and 51% in South Carolina.

Role of Government

Likely Republican voters overwhelmingly favor a smaller government providing fewer services to a bigger government providing more extensive services. Despite this widely shared view, sizable minorities of GOP voters in South Carolina and New Hampshire, and Republican voters nationally, say they favor the government guaranteeing universal health insurance even if it means raising taxes.

Nationally, about six-in-ten Republican voters (58%) oppose a government guarantee of health insurance, while 39% favor universal health coverage, even if it means higher taxes. In both New Hampshire and South Carolina, more than a third of likely Republican voters support providing health insurance to all citizens even if it means higher taxes (35% in New Hampshire, 40% in South Carolina).

However, Republican voters in Iowa overwhelmingly reject this proposal. Fully 76% of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers oppose providing universal health insurance, including 38% who strongly oppose this idea, the highest proportion in the three states.

Republican voters in Iowa also take a much more conservative position when asked about the tradeoff between stricter environmental laws and economic growth. Half of Iowa Republicans say that stricter environmental laws cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, while 39% say stricter laws are worth the cost. Republican voters elsewhere generally say that tougher environmental laws are worth the cost: 55% of Republican voters nationally, 54% in New Hampshire, and 53% in South Carolina express than view.

Differences on Social Issues, Immigration

Likely Republican voters in the three primary states oppose gay marriage by wide margins. But opposition is much more widespread — and more intense — among Republican primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina than those in New Hampshire.

Overall, 59% of those who say they are likely to vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary oppose gay marriage, while 30% are in favor. Roughly twice as many likely Republican voters favor gay marriage in New Hampshire than in Iowa (13%) or South Carolina (13%). Moreover, roughly half of Republican voters in those two states strongly oppose gay marriage (53% Iowa, 50% South Carolina); only about a quarter of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire (28%) strongly oppose gay marriage.

A similar pattern is apparent in views of primary state Republican voters about abortion. A solid majority of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire (55%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases; that compares with 38% of Republican voters in South Carolina and 35% in Iowa who believe abortion should be always or mostly legal.

On immigration, far more Republican voters nationally believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values than say they strengthen American society (59% vs. 30%). That is the balance of opinion as well among likely Republican voters in South Carolina. In New Hampshire and Iowa, however, somewhat fewer Republican voters believe that the growing number of newcomers to the United States threatens traditional customs and values (50% and 47%, respectively).

Trade and Taxes

Both of the major political parties continue to be divided over the impact of free trade agreements such as NAFTA. Yet trade is a rare issue where the opinion gap between the parties is fairly modest.

Nationally, 45% of Republican voters and an identical proportion of Democratic voters say free trade agreements such as NAFTA are a bad thing for the country; 39% of Republican voters and 36% of Democratic voters say they have a positive impact on the country. Opinions among Republican and Democratic voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina also are comparable.

However, likely Republican voters in Iowa express more positive views of free trade agreements than do Democratic voters in the state — or Republican voters in other early primary states. People who say they are likely to vote in Iowa’s Republican caucuses are evenly divided on free trade’s impact (44% good thing/43% bad thing). Democratic voters view trade agreements negatively, by 51%-30%.

As expected, the partisan differences over tax policy are considerable. Solid majorities of Republican voters nationally (63%) and in Iowa 64% favor keeping all of President Bush’s tax cuts; smaller majorities in New Hampshire (53%) and South Carolina (52%) agree. For the most part, Democratic voters favor repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, while leaving others in place. There is minimal support among Democrats, both nationally and in the early primary states, for retaining all of Bush’s tax cuts.

Views of Economy, Jobs

National surveys have consistently shown Republicans to express much more positive views than Democrats about the national and local economy. While Republican voters in all three early primary states have more favorable impressions of the economy than do Democrats in those states, there are clear differences among the GOP voters in different states.

A solid majority of likely Republican voters in Iowa (57%) rate national economic conditions as excellent (9%) or good (48%). Just 41% of South Carolina Republicans have a positive impression of the economy, as do 44% in New Hampshire and 45% among national Republicans. Similarly, 68% of Iowa Republicans say there are plenty of jobs available in their community. That compares with 58% of Republicans nationally, 55% in New Hampshire, and 51% in South Carolina.

Cite this publication: “GOP Race Unsettled in Politically Diverse Early States.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 4, 2007) http://www.people-press.org/2007/12/04/gop-race-unsettled-in-politically-diverse-early-states/, accessed on July 22, 2014.