Poll: Huckabee Surges in Iowa

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has vaulted over his major GOP challengers to take a commanding lead in the race to win the Iowa caucuses, while Barack Obama continues to edge ahead of Hillary Clinton among Democrats likely to participate, a new NEWSWEEK poll shows.

The most dramatic result to come out of the poll, which is based on telephone interviews with 1,408 registered Iowa voters on Dec. 5 and 6, is Huckabee's emergence from the shadows of the GOP race into the front runner's spot in just two months. The ordained Southern Baptist minister now leads Romney by a two-to-one margin, 39 percent to 17 percent, among likely GOP caucus-goers. In the last NEWSWEEK survey, conducted Sept. 26-27, Huckabee polled a mere 6 percent to Romney's 25 percent, which then led the field.

Huckabee has also opened up a wide margin over the next three leading candidates, who all show signs of fading in Iowa: Rudy Giuliani, who dropped from 15 percent in the last survey to 9 percent in the current one; Fred Thompson, who fell from 16 percent to 10 percent; and John McCain, who slipped from 7 percent to 6 percent. "You rarely see anything like [Huckabee's surge]," says Larry Hugick, who directed the polling for Princeton Survey Research Associates. Hugick added that the reason has as much to do with a leeriness of the other candidates among Republican voters as Huckabee's folksy success on the stump. "He's filling a vacuum," Hugick said. "Nobody on the Republican side was getting strong support."

The poll, which has an overall margin of error of 3 percent, also indicated that on the Republican as well as the Democratic side Iowa is increasingly becoming a two-person race. Among likely GOP caucus-goers, 57 percent name Huckabee as their first or second choice and 39 percent give Romney as their first or second choice. On this measure, Thompson is a distant third, with just 20 percent.

Questions about religion—in particular skepticism about Romney's Mormonism—appeared to play a role in the latest results on the GOP side. The survey was completed on the day of the former Massachusetts governor's much-heralded speech in College Station, Texas, addressing his religion, though most respondents probably had not heard it. Still, only a small number of the 540 Republican voters surveyed in Iowa (10 percent) said they wanted to hear more from Romney about that issue, and close to half (46 percent) said at least some Iowa Republican voters will not consider supporting Romney because of his Mormon faith. More than a quarter (27 percent) said they don't consider Mormons to be Christians, and one in six (16 percent) said they are less likely to support Romney because he is a Mormon.

Huckabee's religious credibility, by the same token, appears to be a key factor behind his surge. Huckabee has opened up a huge lead among evangelicals, who are likely to make up about 40 percent of GOP caucus-goers on Jan. 3, the survey found. Among all Republican voters who identify themselves as evangelicals, 47 percent support Huckabee while only 14 percent back Romney. Among nonevangelicals, the two candidates are dead even at 24 percent apiece. Even so, a majority of Republican voters indicated that other issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, health care and Iraq, are more important than religion.

Unlike the GOP race, standings in the Democratic campaign have not changed dramatically since the September NEWSWEEK poll in Iowa. However, Barack Obama has gained some ground, moving to within a point of Hillary Clinton among all Democratic voters (29 percent vs. 30 percent), with John Edwards in third place at 21 percent. Among those most likely to attend the caucuses, Obama has moved substantially ahead of Clinton, 35 percent to 29 percent, while Edwards falls back a bit, to 18 percent. Obama also gets more support from those who say they will "probably" attend a Democratic caucus (40 percent vs. 27 percent for Clinton). While the Illinois senator's lead among Democratic caucus-goers in this poll is not large enough to be statistically significant, things seem to be trending his way, Hugick said. "It's evolving into a two-person race, with Edwards hanging on," he said.

The close duel between Obama and Clinton depends a great deal on the way their competing strengths are perceived, the survey shows. Obama is much more likely than Clinton to be viewed as the candidate best able to bring about change (42 percent vs. 28 percent for Clinton) and as more personally likable (41 percent vs. 18 percent). Clinton, however, is viewed far more as the candidate with the right experience for the job (48 percent vs. 15 percent for Obama) and as the person most likely to defeat the GOP nominee (36 percent vs. 27 percent). One potential trouble sign for Hillary, however, is that in contrast to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, when John Kerry leaped into the lead on the basis of his electability, only about one quarter (23 percent) of likely Democratic caucus-goers say they are inclined to support a candidate with the best chance of defeating the GOP nominee.

This poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from December 5-6. Telephone interviews were conducted with 1,408 registered Iowa voters. Registered voters were screened from a random-digit-dial (RDD) telephone sample of Iowa residents. Registration status is self-reported and includes those who plan to register. Ninety-one percent of adults in the sample reported being registered or planning to register so they could attend a caucus.

Results are weighted so that the sample demographics match Census Current Population Survey parameters for gender, age, education, race, region, and population density. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for results based on 1,408 registered Iowa voters. Results based on smaller subgroups are subject to larger margins of sampling error.