The Des Moines Register reports on its new poll of likely 2016 presidential caucus goers: “Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have the highest unfavorable ratings of 11 potential White House candidates, yet Iowa’s Republican primary voters think they would have the best chance of being elected over the Democratic candidate in November 2016. Paul Ryan, a fiscal hawk considered another establishment guy, earns the highest favorability rating in the poll. But voters don’t think he or Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Rand Paul — religious or liberty-leaning conservatives — are as electable as the two East Coast governors, The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll shows.”
Before anyone gets too excited about this or other early polls, remember that early polling is generally a factor of name recognition, although Rick Santorum is well-known but not well-liked. (“Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who squeaked out a 2012 Iowa caucuses win after visiting every county, has among the lowest ratings — for both favorability and electability — of the 11 names tested.”) Moreover, we don’t know who will run, how they will weather scrutiny over the 18 months or so before the caucuses and how they will perform on the stump and in debates.
Moreover, Iowa tends to be an outlier. Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008, Bob Dole in 1988 and George H.W. Bush in 1980 won the caucuses and didn’t get the nomination. The only two non-incumbent Republicans to win the caucuses and then go on to win the nomination were Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Iowa in past contests has helped narrow the field, but these days political action committees and wealthy individuals can keep candidates afloat for a very long time. The days when a candidate could win Iowa and New Hampshire and thereby sew up the nomination are likely gone, especially since the early primaries in 2016 will not all be winner-take-all affairs. Nor is starting early a key to winning in Iowa. (Mitt Romney spent oodles of time and money in Iowa only to lose there in 2008.)
In presidential politics more generally, GOP candidates who have run before do very well the second time around (e.g. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney). In fact, going back to 1968, the only nominee who was a first-time presidential candidate was George W. Bush in 2000 — and he knew a thing or two about running for president.
Republicans don’t generally trust newcomers. Since 1968 not a single GOP nominee has been in his first term of elective office. The closest was Romney who had completed a single term as governor before he ran for president.
The most undiluted conservative nominee who refused to moderate his positions was the party’s biggest loser (Barry Goldwater in 1964).
In short, polls now are predictive of little. And they say history repeats — until it doesn’t. What we can say is that more often than not the GOP chooses an experienced, mainstream nominee. But like sports, you have to watch the whole game to find out how it comes out.