In the Arena

Where Does the Limbaugh Vote Go?

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Absolutely fascinating, and slightly hilarious, new poll today from Iowa–conducted by J. Ann Selzer, who knows that state better than anyone (she polls for the Des Moines Register, but did this one for Bloomberg):

Cain 20

Paul 19

Romney 18

Gingrich 17

And 60% say they may change their vote between now and the caucusing. Cain’s support is the softest, Ron Paul’s is the strongest. Which raises the question–where does the Cain/Limbaugh vote go?

Cain’s campaign is in freefall, even if his polling numbers are still respectable. Yesterday, he offered this remarkable gem, on Libya, to the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. There is now comprehensive, unimpeachable evidence that Herman Cain is a doofus. He remains afloat largely on a tide of blather provided by Rush Limbaugh–and by the congenital orneriness of many Tea Party stalwarts who (a) have been bollixed in their search for an ideologically pure candidate and (b) tend to support any candidate who runs afoul of the mainstream media. This is especially true of the 60-70% of Tea Party guys who don’t believe there’s any such thing as sexual harassment–apparently anything short of rape is only flirting.

I expect that the Cain vote evaporates as we get closer to the caucus…but where does it go? I can make a case for any of the three other possibilities, and also a case against. Here goes:

Ron Paul–a modified libertarianism is near the heart of the Tea Party movement. He’s well known in Iowa and has fervent supporters throughout the state who’ll drag every possible Paul vote from their homes on caucus night. On the other hand, his isolationism, including occasional anti-“patriotic” statements about the effects of U.S. military policy overseas, and his wilder ventures into libertarian frontiers on legalization of drugs and prostitution, don’t mix very well with the Republican DNA. He may be near his peak with 20% of the Iowa vote, but who knows?

Newt Gingrich–the flavor of November. The Tea Party crowd love the way he batters the moderators in the debates and his gleeful intemperance, calling Obama a radical socialist follower of Saul Alinsky at every turn. (Most Tea Partiers probably don’t know who Alinsky was–he was a radical Chicago-based community organizer–but “Saul Alinsky” sure does sound like the sort of name a socialist would have. And, by the way, putting the moderate Barack Obama in the same category as Alinsky is ridiculous on its face.) But Newt has flipped as many flops as Romney and married three times as many women. Can religious conservatives vote for such a man? Can Tea Partiers vote for a man who once supported an individual mandate for health insurance and cap-and-trade?

Mitt Romney–This is a real problem for Iowa conservatives. No one trusts him. I mean, he enacted an individual mandate; he was vehemently in favor of gay rights and a woman’s right to have an abortion. Now he isn’t. And he’s a Mormon, which is sort of…unusual, don’t-ya-know? (A bias usually expressed in backyard whispers, rather than in public places.) On the other hand, he is the only plausible President in the Republican field–and he may, eventually, benefit from an oh-hell, why-not factor? The recent Battleground poll had significant numbers of Cain votes drifting to Romney as second choice.

But the real flip-floppers aren’t Romney or Gingrich–they’re the Iowa voters (of both parties, by the way), who are whimsical beyond all reason. They will change their minds and allegiances weekly until the last week before the Caucuses, when they will begin to change their minds daily. I’ve done 10 of these. I’ve seen George H.W. Bush come from nowhere to beat Ronald Reagan in 1980. I’ve seen Gary Hart come from Rick Santorum territory to start an anti-Walter Mondale wave that almost carried him to the nomination. ¬†Again and again it happens: Richard Gephardt dead in December of 1987, a winner in January of 1988; Pat Robinson, Mike Huckabee, John Kerry, Barack Obama–all riders of the Iowa zephyrs.

All of which is to say: there is no way of possibly knowing how Iowa is going to go…and that is why today’s utterly inconclusive poll is probably the most accurate so far.