GOP 2012: Do Early Polls Matter?
A new poll shows Obama beating current GOP frontrunners like Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and Palin by several points. Obama would only tie a nameless, generic GOP opponent, which suggests Americans may be open to replacing him if they could find the right candidate.
But that's a big if.
The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and others have pointed to the uphill battle Republicans face--not because Obama is so strong, but because Republicans are so weak.
"All - that's A-L-L - of the Republicans considering runs for the nomination carry at least one major flaw that could keep them from victory," Cillizza writes of potential candidates Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, John Thune, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee.
He quotes Mark McKinnon, former adviser to President George W. Bush, saying, "So far, the Republican field looks conventional and flawed. To beat Obama, the GOP is going to have to come up with a ticket that is fresh, exciting, unconventional and free of major flaws."
Writing for The Daily Beast after the midterm elections, Benjamin Sarlin quotes several Republican strategists saying the GOP field is not where they'd like it to be.
"Call it the resurgent Republicans’ Achilles Heel. The GOP may have taken the House, closed in on the Senate, and made dramatic gains at the state level. But the party’s 2012 presidential field is weak—and a lot of Republicans know it," he writes.
Sarlin spoke with Andrew Ian Dodge, coordinator for the state Tea Party Patriots, who said, “The modern parlance of ‘meh’ pretty much sums up the lineup."
And it's not just pundits and strategists who are concerned, it's coming out in the polls, too.
Major hype surrounds recent polls like the one that gave Sarah Palin a 56 percent unfavorable rating among all Americans and a poll showing the Republican Party is sharply divided over their best candidate in 2012.
FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver has explored the role of early polls and what--if any--role they play in predicting presidential outcomes.
"Even at this early stage, polls tell us something -- not everything, not a lot, but something -- about how the candidates are liable to be perceived next year following the primaries." Silver writes.
In his analysis, he finds, "[T]he public’s view of [2012's potential Republican candidates] ranges from tepid, to uncertain, to fairly poor. In contrast, at a comparable point in elections dating back to 2000, at least a couple of candidates in each field were reasonably popular."
He counters arguments like those of Brendan Nyhan, who points to popular candidates who have not won before and the role the economy has played in past elections (dating back to the 80s and 90s) and will play in this one.
"[In 1991] Bill Clinton, who started out with relatively modest numbers (15% favorable/12% unfavorable), ended up unseating a president who many thought would be unbeatable. The key factor? A slow economy," Nyhan writes.
He also cites Ronald Reagan who had low favorables in 1979 but "ended up sweeping the Electoral College in 1980 as a result of the terrible economy."
So what does this mean for 2012?
"Romney and Huckabee are starting from a similar position. If the economy is bad enough, they'll win too," he concludes.
"The numbers that ultimately matter are economic growth, not early-stage polling."
Silver counters these examples by citing the unpopularity of the incumbents Reagan and Clinton were facing. He guesses Carter's 1980 approval ratings hovered around 31 percent, George H.W. Bush's 1992 ratings around 39 percent, "If Barack Obama’s numbers are in that range in November, 2012, it will be almost impossible for him to be re-elected regardless of the identity of the Republican nominee (although one Republican, Sarah Palin, has such poor favorability ratings that it might make for an interesting test case were they not to improve)."
But Obama's current polling numbers stand reasonably strong.
But Silver says Obama still could be in trouble if his approval ratings show up anywhere between 40 and 52 percent, "[W]ithin this range, the quality of the Republican candidate might plausibly make some difference as to whether he wins or loses."
A Public Policy Polling survey released Wednesday shows Obama in a dead 47 percent to 47 percent tie in a re-election match up against a generic Republican.
He polls significantly better, however, against known GOPers leading Huckabee by 3 points, Romney by 5 points, Gingrich by 9 points and Palin by 12 points.
“All of the actual Republican candidates poll weaker than the generic ones,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “That shows Barack Obama is still quite vulnerable, but polling well because of the lack of candidate quality in the GOP field. If that changes we’re going to have a much closer race on our hands.”
So what are some key factors that remain?
Name recognition could affect polling: Of those surveyed in the Feb. 8 CNN poll, 21 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican said they would support former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee if he decides to run. Former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was close behind with 19 percent of the support. Former Massachusetts governor and 2008 Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney came in at 18 percent.
But the current standing of Huckabee, Palin and Romney could be "mostly a matter of name recognition."
"Keep in mind that Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani - both relatively famous when they decided to run for president - were ahead in polls conducted in 2003 and 2007," said CNN's Polling Director Keating Holland. "Neither man won a single primary or caucus once the voting started."