Fickle Iowa, NH voters could hand GOP hopefuls a New Year’s surprise

If there’s one lesson to learn from the 2012 presidential race thus far, it’s that voters change their minds — sometimes with astonishing frequency.

The cyclical ebb and flow of presidential front-runners throughout 2011 has revealed the extent to which the GOP base is composed of "soft support" — voters who are quick to flirt with the latest hot ticket, but aren't committed to staying with them for the long haul.

And in the early states, where the primary contests will get started in less than three weeks, voters have had every opportunity to get up close and personal with the candidates, and an interminable succession of polls has tracked their political philandering like hidden cameras in a reality-television dating show.

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But with all signs indicating that it’s the same voters who are bouncing from one contender to the next, it remains to be seen whether their expressed support in the polls will translate into actual votes in the caucuses and primaries.

In New Hampshire, which will hold its first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 10, candidates have been vying for second place behind Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) took second billing in July and August, but then Texas Gov. Rick Perry surged while she fell back.

Businessman Herman Cain’s month-long triumph came next, but when allegations of sexual harassment did his campaign in, he was replaced by Newt Gingrich. One in 20 New Hampshire voters picked Gingrich in October; two months later, one in four in the Granite State say they support the former House Speaker.

“I don’t believe for a moment that’s backed up by real votes,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “It’s the same kind of incredibly soft support that gave Herman Cain 25 percent and gave Rick Perry 25 percent.”

There are plenty of historical reasons to anticipate New Hampshire won’t follow Iowa’s lead. Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) won in Iowa, but lost to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in New Hampshire. McCain also took New Hampshire in 2000, even though President George W. Bush had swept Iowa one week earlier. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) came out on top in Iowa in 1996, but Pat Buchanan won the GOP primary in New Hampshire.

“People in New Hampshire don’t like the winner in Iowa, because they don’t like the Iowa caucuses,” said Craig Smith, a former speechwriter for former Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush.

In 1980, when Smith was advising Bush, they had built a solid ground operation in Iowa — much like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Bachmann have spent much of 2010 trying to do. Bush won Iowa, but New Hampshire wasn’t as kind to his campaign.

“The mistake he made when he won the Iowa caucuses was to say, ‘We have the Big Mo,’ ” said Smith, referring to the momentum that, in the end, failed to hand him the nomination over Ronald Reagan. “He started talking politics instead of issues.”

Adding to the uncertainty is that Iowa residents might have a gut feeling about one candidate or another when reached by telephone by a pollster, but showing up and spending hours in someone’s living room on caucus day requires a whole different level of commitment.

And if adverse weather descends on Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, it could throw the whole game out of whack for many of the candidates.

A New Year’s blizzard would be welcome news for Paul, whose devoted, enthusiastic supporters would likely persevere no matter the weather. It could also be a boon for Bachmann or Santorum, who are relying on the support of religious and social conservatives — another group unlikely to let a few snowflakes keep them from making their voices heard.