AMES, Iowa -- With exactly one month to go until the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, a new Iowa State University Poll of 1,416 registered Iowa voters finds Hillary Clinton leading among likely Democratic caucus attendees, while Mitt Romney has a slim lead over Mike Huckabee among Republican caucus goers.
Clinton (30.8 percent) is more than six percentage points ahead of John Edwards (24.4 percent) and more than 10 percentage points ahead of Barack Obama (20.2 percent) in the Democratic race. Nearly six percent of Democratic respondents don't know who their top choice will be.
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The top choices were much closer among likely Republican caucus goers, with Mitt Romney leading Mike Huckabee by just over three percentage points, 25.4 to 22.1, which is within the poll's margin of error at plus or minus 6 percentage points. Rudy Giuliani, who leads in the GOP national polls, is third at 15.8 percent. But 11.4 percent of GOP respondents are still uncertain of their top choice.
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The ISU Poll was compiled through phone interviews between Nov. 6-18 and polled 631 Democrats and 785 Republicans, with an overall margin of error for those estimates being roughly 4 percent. Of those polled, 287 said that they definitely or probably would attend the Democratic caucus, and 241 stated that they definitely or probably would attend the Republican caucus. The margin of error is roughly 6 percent for those estimates.
The new poll presents a much different picture in the race than other recent polls -- the latest being one by the Des Moines Register on Sunday, Dec. 2, that showed both Obama and Huckabee in the lead. But while the numbers differ, some common themes have emerged in all the polling
"Most of the top two candidates are still polling within the margin of error, which means there is no clear cut choice," said Jim McCormick, professor and chair of political science, who directed the ISU team on the poll. "The biggest explanation for that is the volatility that still exists among those people who are likely to caucus. We're getting real differences from them, even when they're polled just days apart. And this uncertainty indicates that they're really not committed to these candidates yet."
Among likely caucus goers' second choices -- an important factor in the Democratic caucus format -- Edwards leads his party at 22.7 percent, followed by Obama at 20.1 percent and Clinton 13.1 percent.
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"Where we are consistent (with the other recent polls) is in second choices on the Democratic side, where Senator Clinton has some problems," McCormick said. "That's because among people who will not form groups (in the caucus format), she's their third choice, much like a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found. So that's an important kind of consistency in the results."
On the Republican side among second choices, Romney and Giuliani are in a statistical tie at 17.4 and 17.3 percent respectively, with Fred Thompson at 12.1 percent. Huckabee is fifth at 7.9 percent.
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While second choices will be important to the candidates on Jan. 3, they may be tough to predict in a poll because of the caucus process.
"What really may be the factor on caucus night is where the supporters of those second-tier candidates who don't meet viability are going to gravitate to," said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at ISU. "And I would say at this point, it doesn't make any difference what they say in a poll on who their second choice is because a telephone or Internet poll does not replicate the experience of the caucuses where you're going to be cajoled and wooed to join a group -- particularly if your top choice candidate is not viable."
Among Democratic candidates, Clinton draws the strongest support from women who plan to caucus at 35.4 percent -- around 60 percent of her total support -- with Edwards second at 24.8 percent, and Obama a distant third at 15.3 percent. Clinton and Obama are tied for the lead among men at 25.7 percent, with Edwards also within the margin of error at 24.1 percent.
"I think there's going to be a lot of shifting between now and the actual date of the caucuses, but any Democratic presidential candidate needs the votes of women," said Bystrom, who is working on book chapters about Clinton's presidential campaign. "The percentage of women who say they're going to caucus for Hillary Clinton has declined a little bit over the last month, but where she's declined with women, she's picked up with men. And so I don't think it's going to hurt her very much."
Romney also has a commanding lead among Republican women planning to caucus with 27.5 percent, although it represents just 39.6 percent of his total support. While Huckabee is a distant second with GOP women at 16.2 percent, he is the top choice among men at 25.7 percent -- representing 73 percent of those who made him their top choice. Romney is second among Republican men with 24.5 percent, while Guiliani is third among both genders with 16.6 percent of men, and 14.7 of women. Nearly 18 percent of women polled were uncertain of their top choice, compared with just 7.8 percent of men.
Obama had the most support among registered Democrats with income less than $25,000 at 39 percent, but Clinton had the most support in the next two categories ($25-50K, $50-75K) at 35 percent and 41 percent respectively, and also the most support among those with the highest income (more than $100,000) at 30 percent. In the $75,000 to $100,000 income category, Edwards had the highest level of support at 33 percent.
Romney leads among the Republican candidates in four of the five income categories, with a substantial edge in three of those income brackets. The $50,000 to $75,000 category is the only one he doesn't lead, with Huckabee leading it at 28 percent -- six points more than Romney.
Poll projects likely caucus night turnout
Applying the percentage of respondents who said they "definitely will attend" their party caucuses on Jan. 3 to the number of registered voters in each party. The ISU Poll projects a Democratic turnout of perhaps as high as 150,000 attendees, with a 95 percent confidence interval of 130,000 to 175,000. As many as 88,500 are projected among the Republicans, with a 95 percent confidence interval ranging from about 74,000 to 103,000.
"That disparity (among party participation on caucus night) has actually historically been true," said McCormick. "I think some of the Democratic projections may be a reflection of the popularity of some of the candidates. I think you can certainly make the case that if Hillary Clinton could get more people to attend, it looks like she would probably do a lot better in the caucuses. For instance, we found that among likely non-caucus goers, Clinton's support was higher than among likely caucus goers.
"Some candidates' fortunes will really depend upon getting a bigger turnout," he said. "Supporters of Huckabee, if they're evangelical Christians, I would think that they would be pretty motivated to get out to the caucuses. On the other side, some of Giuliani's supporters, who may not see themselves as doing particularly well, may not have the same kind of incentive to go to that caucus arrangement."
The poll also asked respondents to select among four options on the most important factors in their decision to support a candidate. Among the Democrats, the most important factor was whether the candidate "cares about people" at 40 percent. Republican respondents chose the most important factor to be that the candidate "takes strong stands" at 39.8 percent. The quality ranked the lowest by both parties was whether the candidate "can win the election" -- 12.9 percent among Democrats and 7.3 percent among Republicans.
On the issues
All respondents, whether likely to caucus or not, were also asked their views on how the U.S. government is currently doing on important foreign and domestic issues. Foreign policy issues included what should be done about U.S. troops in Iraq, how effective the U.S. has been in combating terrorism, and what should be done on the issue of immigration. Respondents from both parties showed great interest in immigration reform, with a large majority of Republicans (65 percent) and slight majority of Democrats (50 percent) supporting the idea of building "fences or other barriers to keep people from entering the country illegally." Iowa has been at the front of the immigration debate since last year when federal immigration agents arrested nearly 100 undocumented workers at the Swift & Co. plant in Marshalltown.
"Both of the parties' supporters really want something done about immigration," said McCormick. "And so we've seen a sort of division on that in terms of some of the candidates. It suggests to me that not all of the candidates are in tune with what Iowa Democrats and Republicans really want done on that issue."
On domestic issues, respondents were polled on the U.S. economy, abortion, federal education spending, environment, health insurance, and same-sex marriages.
The Iowa State University Poll is supported by the Department of Political Science, the Department of Statistics, the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economics Development at Iowa State University.