The Paul Predicament: GOP Contender Tied With Obama Among Iowans


Home / The Paul Predicament: GOP Contender Tied With Obama Among Iowans

Can success in Iowa make Paul a surprise frontrunner? Image credit: R. DeYoung

A new NBC/Marist poll released yesterday indicates that Republican primary candidate Ron Paul, who has not been considered a frontrunner in national polls, is the only GOP contender to tie President Obama among Iowans in a hypothetical 2012 general election matchup.  Paul and Obama each earned 42 percent of the vote, with 16 percent undecided. Obama edged out all other Republican candidates, including Herman Cain who recently suspended his campaign, by margins ranging from 7 (Romney) to 23 (Bachmann) points. Despite Paul’s strong performance against Obama, his poll numbers were lower when the sample was broken down into Republican voters who were likely to attend the January 3 Iowa Caucuses. Among the GOP sample, Paul secured 16 percent of the vote, while Romney held 17 percent and Gingrich led with 24 percent.

NBC/Marist Poll Methodology

The NBC/Marist poll was conducted between November 27 and November 29. The sample consisted of 3223 adult Iowans, 916 of whom self-identified as likely GOP Caucus attendees. Respondents were contacted via landline directories gathered with the purpose of evenly disbursing sampling throughout the state, and random dialing of cell phones. Although 916 respondents stated they were registered Republicans who plan to vote on January 3, a turnout probability model reduced this sample to 425. The margin of error for the general sample was +/-1.7, and for the Republican sample was +/-4.8.

The Significance of Iowa

The Iowa caucuses can impact the remainder of the nomination process. Image by Gage

Iowa is often targeted by pollsters leading up to an election year because the Iowa Caucuses are the first of the 2012 primaries. The Republican candidate who wins Iowa next month will generate momentum from the media buzz associated with the win, which may propel him or her to victory in subsequent elections.  However, history does not consistently support the theory that a win in Iowa automatically secures the nomination, so results from a poll conducted exclusively in Iowa should not be solely relied upon to gauge national sentiment.

Flaws in the NBC/Marist Poll

While the poll generally was conducted in a scientific manner, the set of variables used to reduce the GOP sample to 425 from 916 was not revealed. Although it may be good practice to use such a method to calculate turnout, since a percentage of voters who claim they will vote often do not, it is impossible to know whether the number was exaggerated, or fell short, without seeing the formula.

The Independent Effect

Paul’s strong performance among general voters, and mediocre performance among GOP voters, can likely be attributed to his Libertarian stance on many issues. When the general sample was broken down by party affiliation, 36 percent identified as Democrats, 35 identified as Independents, and 28 percent identified as Republicans. Since many of Paul’s opinions differ from the mainstream Republican ideology, it is likely that Paul picked up support from Independents who generally support neither of the two major parties, and possibly some Democrats who lean to the left on social issues and to the right on fiscal issues.

Interpreting the Iowa Poll Results

Ron Paul ties President Obama, but is not in the lead for the GOP nomination. Image by Decoded Science

Although Paul clearly resonates with Iowans, the road to the White House includes winning the Iowa GOP Caucus, the majority of the rest of the national primaries, and the general election. The first step is likely to be difficult for him, as this poll and another one conducted over the same time by the Des Moines Register, has Gingrich securing nearly one quarter of the Caucus votes. These polls do bring some good news to Paul, as the NBC/Marist results show him trailing Romney by only one point, and the Des Moines Register poll has him leading Romney by two points.  Another caveat for Paul is that both polls included Herman Cain, who has since dropped out of the race. Many political analysts are predicting that Gingrich will be the candidate who benefits from the former Cain supporters switching their votes, as he and Cain shared a similar ideology, and their alleged personal friendship makes it possible that Gingrich may receive Cain’s endorsement.

In the event that Paul does go on to win the Iowa Caucus, he will face additional challenges in convincing a national audience that he is the ideal candidate. Aggregate Republican voter data compiled by RealClearPolitics indicates that Paul only stands at 8 percent, compared to Romney’s 20.4 percent and Gingrich’s 26.6 percent. When matched with President Obama in polling of general voters, Paul trails by 7.7 points. However, it should be noted that many of the polls used to compile aggregate data are more than a week old, and some may not include such recent factors as allegations about Cain’s affair, and subsequent campaign suspension, or Gingrich’s recent surge.


Marist Poll. NBC News/Marist Poll: Gingrich Races to the Head of the Pack in Iowa. Accessed December 5, 2011.

RealClearPolitics. 2012 Republican Presidential Nomination. Accessed December 5, 2011.

RealClearPolitics. Obama vs. Republican Candidates. Accessed December 5, 2011.

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