Almost four years ago, CNN took a poll to learn whom Republicans might choose as their party’s 2012 presidential nominee. There were two clear front-runners: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Mitt Romney limped in third.
By the time the campaign arrived, of course, Ms. Palin and Mr. Huckabee were pursuing careers as television pundits and after-dinner speakers. It’s in that spirit that we should contemplate last week’s burst of polling on the 2016 presidential campaign.
The front-runner at this point for the 2016 Republican nomination is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. In two polls of Republican voters, Sen. Rubio turned up in first place, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fairly close behind.
Sen. Rubio won his first-place status with the support of about a fifth of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. Pundits will call him the front-runner because they like to pin that label on somebody, but it’s a tenuous perch. Just ask Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.
So why pay attention to polls that amount to little more than beauty contests? Because even though they can’t predict the winner three years from now, these surveys tell us something about the mood of Republican voters today.
A closer look at the results tells us that it’s a wide-open race. Republican voters are looking for a new face, not a familiar figure. But they’re also looking, it seems, for a reliably conservative face; no moderates need apply.
Here are the numbers from last week’s Quinnipiac University poll: Sen. Rubio was first with 19 percent, followed by Rep. Ryan (17 percent), Sen. Paul (15 percent), Gov. Christie (14 percent) and Mr. Bush (10 percent). In a survey from Public Policy Polling, a respected Democratic firm, the results were similar: Sen. Rubio (21 percent), Rep. Paul (17 percent), Gov. Christie (15 percent), Rep. Ryan (12 percent) and Mr. Bush (12 percent).
So Sen. Rubio’s in first place, but he doesn’t have anything like the commanding lead that Hillary Rodham Clinton has in similar polls of Democratic voters. At 64 percent in the Public Policy Polling survey, Mrs. Clinton really does merit the title of front-runner; no non-incumbent in memory has ever held so wide a lead. Of course, she hasn’t said for sure that she wants the job; nor have any of these Republicans we’re handicapping with such zest.
GOP voters, meanwhile, are still shopping around. Two months ago, for example, Sen. Paul drew only 10 percent in a PPP poll; his filibuster on domestic drones last month appears to have made him what one GOP campaign manager wryly called “the shiny new object” in the race.
“It looks as if Republicans are looking for a generational change,” noted Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. If the Democrats nominate Mrs. Clinton (who will turn 69 in 2016) or Vice President Joe Biden (who will turn 74), the GOP will have youth on its side — at least on the ticket.
But the apparent front-runners are all solidly conservative. “There’s no such thing as a moderate base in the Republican primary,” notes John Brabender, who managed Rick Santorum’s second-place finish in 2012. “And the voters who show up for the primary are often more conservative than the ones these polls are sampling.”
After Mr. Romney’s defeat, polls found that most Republican voters took the loss as proof that their party should move farther to the right. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Republicans said they wanted the GOP to become more conservative, not less; only 31 percent said they wanted “more moderation.” (Strikingly, Democrats felt the opposite way about their party: 55 percent said they thought Democratic leaders should move toward the center, 35 percent in a more liberal direction.)
Does a party more conservative than Mitt Romney’s stand a chance of winning a presidential election? The GOP won in 1980 when it nominated Ronald Reagan, a conservative who was said to be outside the mainstream of opinion at the time. And in 2016, a Democrat will have held the White House for eight years. Only once in the last 70 years has a party succeeded in holding the presidency for three terms in a row.
Yet in the PPP survey, Mrs. Clinton beats Sen. Rubio in a presidential matchup, 49 percent to 42 percent. She beats every other potential Republican candidate, too. If that turns out to be the story of the 2016 presidential election, just remember: You read it here first. And if it’s wrong, well, you know how unreliable those crazy polls can be.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. His email is doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.