I remember when Howard Dean was absolutely, positively going to be the Democrat nominee for President of the United States. Right up until people actually started voting in the Iowa Caucus, the first “counting” votes in the nation. Dean lost Iowa, and went on to crater as a Presidential candidate, somehow wasting the momentum he had built in previous months.
That’s why the up-and-down, back-and-forth of the early Presidential election season – and the polls they engender – deserve quite a bit less attention then they receive. At the moment, most polls show three top contenders for the Republican nomination (President Obama is likely to run unopposed). Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are the front-runners, but there are several things readers should consider about these early polls.
First, no nationwide poll that asks about Presidential preference means anything. Neither the President – nor either Party’s Presidential nominee – is decided by a nationwide referendum. Rather, nominees and ultimately who will serve as President, are chosen through a series of state-based contests. In choosing the nominee, these contests go on for months, although front-loading of the schedule tends to quickly winnow the field to only a couple of top contenders, and normally picks a nominee before all the States have a chance to weigh in. The close, long-running 2008 battle between then-Senator Obama and Hillary Clinton was an exception and stood in contrast to that year’s Republican battle which was decided in Senator McCain’s favor relatively early on.
Second, almost no one is actually paying attention. Recent Republican debates have drawn cable audiences on Fox and MSNBC of about 5 million viewers. While this sounds like a lot (especially when compared with normal viewing levels at these networks), it is a fraction of those who will vote in 2012. The 2008 Presidential election drew more than 130 million voters to all candidates and 2012 seems likely to be well beyond that figure. More people will be paying attention as the Primaries and Caucuses begin rolling across America in January, but that is a lifetime away in politics. Many Americans will not make up their minds until a year from now.
Third, current polling reflects name familiarity and perceived momentum as much as anything else. Because he has run before, and has been in the news frequently over the last few years, it should have come as no surprise that Mitt Romney was the early leader in preference polls. Rick Perry, who did a masterful job of managing the run-up to his announcement as a candidate, made a huge media splash and, at least for a while, launched himself to the top. Herman Cain has been running a marathon more like Romney’s, in that he started slowly, and has been building momentum all along. Because he’s been at it the longest, Romney seems the least likely to lose much of his current base – those who have committed to him will probably stick. Whether Cain can maintain, or Perry recapture, will tell the tale of their candidacies.
Any of these candidates – and even several of those now considered also-rans – could easily be the Republican choice to take on President Obama a year from now. But if history is our guide, once Americans actually start voting, one or more of today’s front-runners will leave Iowa or New Hampshire or Super Tuesday with a scream rather then on a roll.
Matt Evans is the President of Wagontire Consulting, Inc, of Raleigh Hills which provides campaign management, campaign consulting, lobbying and strategic communications services. He can be reached at [email protected]