Early polls aren’t predictive of a presidential primary but they do reflect current movement up or down of candidates in relation to the competitors in the field. According to a USA Today/Suffolk poll, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — perhaps due to an atrocious recent visit to the state or to his fringe national security views — is faltering while little-remarked-upon Mike Huckabee remains a favorite in the state he won in 2008. Paul once commanded double-digit support but is now down to 7 percent and trails Texas Gov. Rick Perry (at 8 percent) narrowly. For now Huckabee commands support from 13 percent with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 11 percent.
Perry and Paul, it is not surprising, are moving in opposite directions. Perry has distinguished himself with robust support for Israel and tough foreign policy views and has been warmly received in the state while Paul got tripped up running from a immigration advocate, getting caught in a flip-flop on aid to Israel and generally taking an Obama-like stance on foreign policy. That is a dynamic to keep an eye on: Do the knowledgeable hawks advance while foreign policy novices falter?
There is something else at work in this and other polls. The conventional wisdom for some time has been that Christie is dead in the water, Paul is the leader and Perry is going nowhere. But what if no polls bear this out? The media clings to its story lines obsessively, but at some point they might take notice of several critical trends.
First, foreign policy debacles have rattled the electorate. They are looking for the anti-Obama, not an Obama-but-worse candidate. Second, voters don’t make permanent decisions this early in the pre-primary season. Christie, in the minds of many voters, hasn’t been found guilty of any wrongdoing and is still a vibrant character with a good record of governance. And they aren’t discounting Perry because of 2012. It’s a new election and he appears to be getting a fresh look. Third, what about Huckabee? He remains popular with Christian conservatives and is nearly unmatched in his TV performance ability (thanks to years as a Fox News host). He’s a populist who doesn’t see the solutions to all ills in cutting government and taxes. (In fact, his tax hikes as Arkansas governor were a liability in 2008.) It is far from clear that he is running, but if he did, he would be one more contender for the hearts of social conservatives.
For now it is safe to say that horrible outings in early primary states will turn off voters. And Republicans are rallying to strong voices on foreign policy. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.