With five Republican candidates polling at 10 or more percent in the Iowa caucuses (Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Ron Paul), as well as in national polls (substituting Rudy Giuliani for Ron Paul), the GOP race certainly appears to be the horserace to end all horseraces.
In the last three decades, five candidates have never reached double-digits in the GOP Iowa caucus, although it almost happened in 1996 (Bob Dole (26%), Pat Buchanan (23%), Lamar Alexander (18%), Steve Forbes (10%), Phil Gramm (9%)) and in 1988 (Bob Dole (37%), Pat Robertson (25%), George H. W. Bush (19%), Jack Kemp (11%), and Pete DuPont (7%)).
As outlined in a Smart Politics blog yesterday, the role expectations play cannot be overstated in how the media frames candidate performances in these early caucus and primary states: at least 3 commentators on MSNBC and Fox News (including Tom Brokaw) compared Huckabee’s win with “Pat Robertson’s victory” in Iowa in 1988. As mentioned several times here at Smart Politics this campaign season, it was Bob Dole who won in 1988, not Robertson. But, to suit their frame, the media does not let these facts get in the way when they play the expectations game. You see, Robertson’s performance in 1988 was so strong relative to expectations (defeating then Vice-President George H. W. Bush for second place), that he became the story. So much so, that his strong finish has now apparently turned into a ‘victory’ according to prominent broadcasters and pundits.
As with Robertson (who also relied heavily on the evangelical Christian vote in Iowa), the media is rightfully pointing out some potential demographic pitfalls for Huckabee in the short-term (e.g. New Hampshire) and in larger and more industrialized states down the road (California, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio etc.). However, Huckabee would be wise to squash this convenient media frame, and his image thus far in the campaign has been portrayed as different than Robertson’s. Huckabee (an ex-minister) is viewed as more of a folksy, truth-teller than Robertson, who was still an active preacher. Huckabee is also viewed as a lot less divisive and controversial. So look for the former Arkansas Governor to perform much, much better than did Robertson both in New Hampshire and beyond.