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Hashing over the new LAT poll numbers

September 11, 2007 |  4:56 pm

Twenty-eight percent.

In the mass of numbers (which you can review here) in the new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll on the Republican and Democratic presidential races, that figure emerges as perhaps the most illustrative one.

In the survey of voters in three of the early, and potentially crucial, nominating contests, 28% represents the high mark for any Republican candidate. It's the support posted by Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire (in the third state, South Carolina, Fred Thompson leads with 26%).

By contrast, 28% is the low mark scored by Democrat Hillary Clinton in any of the three (she leads in each). That's her figure in Iowa, where the poll finds John Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama within hailing distance. Clinton's backing grows to 35% in New Hampshire, and hits 45% in South Carolina.

In short, it's hard to parse the Democratic race, at this point, as anything other than Clinton's to lose. But the GOP seems wide open --- an oddity for a party that in recent times has rallied around an obvious heir apparent as it's nominee.

The Clinton camp should be pleased by several of the poll's other findings. For instance, ...

she dominated in all three states when the Democratic electorate was asked which candidate had the right experience to be president. She also led, though to a smaller margin, when the voters were asked which of the contenders would be best at fighting terrorism and protecting national security.

Many Democratic insiders have expressed concerns that Clinton would have trouble winning the general election because of a "likeability" problem. And the new poll finds that many Democrats do not view her as the most likeable of the candidates. But more to the point, when it comes to winning the White House, she led easily in all three states in a separate question on electability.

On the GOP side of the equation, if the poll's trends hold when actual voting begins, the results would provide a fascinating test of the importance of momentum over national name recognition.

Rudy Giuliani has consistently led in nationwide polls of Republican-leaning voters (although a New York Times/CBS News poll released today found his margin shrinking). He also has been banking on overcoming any stumbles in the initial caucuses and primaries by overwhelming his rivals in votes that quickly follow --- particularly in Florida, California and his homestate of New York.

Romney has taken precisely the opposite approach, emphasizing a strong start in the smaller states --- especially in Iowa --- and riding a wave from there. While the Times/Bloomberg poll will hearten his camp on that front, it also identifies a potential flaw in his gameplan. In South Carolina --- traditionally a bellwether contest for the GOP --- his support is in single digits.

Republicans are split on who is the most electable among their candidates, another indication of the uncertainty within GOP ranks. Romney gets the nod on that question in Iowa, Giuliani leads in South Carolina and the two are close in New Hampshire (with Giuliani slightly ahead).

Once upon a time --- like, six months ago --- John McCain's presumed strength as a general election candidate was one of his main calling cards. But in a measure of how his fortunes have flagged, he was picked as the Republican having the best chance to beat a Democrat next year by just 6% of the GOP-leaning voters in Iowa, 7% in New Hamsphire and 9% in South Carolina.

The Times' complete story by Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook is available here.

-- Don Frederick