Clemson, South Carolina — Back in August, when callers working for Clemson University’s Palmetto Poll got in touch with South Carolina voters about the Republican primary, the responses they got were pretty relaxed. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I like McCain,’ or ‘I like Rudy,’ but it was kind of casual,” says David Woodard, the Clemson political science professor who directs the poll. Now, that has changed. The election is within sight — South Carolina Republicans will go to the polls January 19 — and people are being more careful with their answers. Fewer respondents are saying who they support, and the number of voters classified as undecided is climbing as the campaign goes on.
“More and more people are taking their responsibility to vote seriously,” Woodard explains. “There’s less willingness to commit.”
In August, 20 percent of those surveyed told Palmetto pollsters that they had not decided for whom to vote. In a new poll released today, 28 percent say they are undecided. The more campaigning that goes on here, the less certain the race is.
And even when a voter expresses a support for a candidate, it’s likely that support is tentative. When the pollsters asked whether voters were sure about their decision to vote for a particular candidate or whether they might change their mind before the primary, 65 percent said they might change. Just 33 percent said they were sure.
Added to that volatility is the fact that the candidates are all tightly bunched together; no one is way out in front or way behind. In the new poll, the leader, Mitt Romney, has the support of just 17 percent of those surveyed, while the fifth-place candidate, Rudy Giuliani, has nine percent. All five top candidates are crowded into the narrow eight-point range that separates first place and fifth place.
Romney’s lead, even if it’s just 17 percent, is a big improvement, given that he was in fourth place with 11 percent in August. “It’s all about television,” says Woodard. “He has been on TV consistently for at least a month, and maybe longer — enough to be seen ten times a week. He’s getting a lot of penetration and he’s got different ads rotating.” And until last week, when Fred Thompson began running ads, Romney was the only one on the air.
Thompson needs the exposure. In the latest poll he has slipped from the 19 percent support he received in August to 15 percent in the new poll — not a huge drop, but enough to fall from first to second place. Some of Thompson’s support has undoubtedly gone to the fast-rising Mike Huckabee, who is in third place in the new poll, with 13 percent. That’s up significantly from August, when Huckabee was in fifth place with six percent.
Woodard attributes some of Huckabee’s improvement to his appearance in September before the pro-life Palmetto Family Council. “His speech was really electric,” Woodard says. “Huckabee was the only one who came, and he brought down the house — I mean, they were standing in the aisles, and I think that’s had a ripple effect.”
The loser in the new poll is Rudy Giuliani, who went from being nearly in first place, with 18 percent, in August, to his current nine percent, fifth-place standing. That’s a loss of half his support in the course of a few months. “As people learn more about the candidates, some of his warts are beginning to show more and more,” says Woodard. “Abortion, when he said he favored government-funded abortion, his civil-unions position, and his three marriages — those are the three things that keep resonating with people I talk to.”
Still in the middle of the race is John McCain, who is in fourth place with 11 percent, down from third place with 15 percent in August. McCain swung through South Carolina today before heading to Florida for the YouTube debate, and after a town hall meeting at Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute, he was not unhappy to hear about all those undecided voters. “I think people just have not decided firmly on a candidate,” McCain said. “They see a TV ad, or hear a radio ad, and they say, ‘Hey, I like that person,’ but I think they haven’t focused that much on the campaign.”
“It shows again that this is kind of wide open.”