Everyone is talking today about new national polling that shows Mitt Romney still failing to rally much beyond 20 percent, no matter how many rivals collapse. Romney is in first place with 23 percent in a McClatchy-Marist poll, and only at 15 percent, just behind Herman Cain and tied with Newt Gingrich, in a CBS survey.
Does this all indicate that Romney is capped at 25 percent or so of Republican voters? No, it really doesn’t. Remember, polls only tell you the answer to the question they are asking. Most Republican voters — still — haven’t engaged yet. And why should they? A whole lot of Republican voters live in California, and they aren’t going to vote until June, when at best they’ll be faced with a choice between two or three of the remaining candidates, not the eight that both polls asked about. They won’t have the choice of “undecided” or “someone else” or “no one,” which combined accounted for a third of the responses the GOP poll. Maybe those other voters will stay home (in which case Romney immediately jumps up to 28 percent in the McClatchy poll and 22 percent in the CBS poll). Maybe they’ll redistribute themselves eventually, once they have an election to vote on.
The point is that the question pollsters are asking now is a very different question than the one that voters will be facing next year. Right now, they’re being asked about a contest that most of them will never vote on between candidates that a lot of them barely know. And yes, that includes Mitt Romney; he’s been running for president for a long time now, so political junkies know a lot about him, but most voters aren’t political junkies. Remember, the candidates have only just recently begun TV advertising in the earlier states, and most of the rest of the nation just knows what they’ve seen on the news, which isn’t much.
The numbers right now aren’t meaningless, but they should most certainly not be taken at face value. Sure, the polling shows that Romney isn’t some sort of much-loved phenomenon among Republicans, but plenty of nominees have been in that boat. And there’s nothing so far to indicate any sort of hard cap on Romney’s support. That doesn’t prove he’ll necessarily win, but the fact that he hasn’t added popular support yet doesn’t indicate that it will be difficult to do so later. I don’t see strong evidence that he has the nomination wrapped up, but it sure looks good for him right now.