Just one in five Republican primary voters described the 2012 presidential field as “strong”in a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, the latest piece of evidence that the current crop of GOP candidates aren’t lighting their own party on fire just yet.
The new data comes hard on the heels of several other pieces of polling that suggest a similar lack of enthusiasm for the field as it is currently constituted.
A Gallup survey out last week showed that only two candidates — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — were viewed by a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents as acceptable nominees.
(At a similar time in the 2008 Republican presidential race, four candidates were rated as “acceptable” by a majority of GOPers in Gallup polling.)
And, roughly one-third of all Americans in a Washington Post- Pew Research Center survey said that the more they hear about the Republican field, the less they like it. (Worth noting: Among only Republicans, the more they heard about their options, the more their opinion of the field improved.)
Those smaller data points are reflective of two larger — and interrelated trends in the GOP electorate: wild volatility and a seemingly never-ending search for a candidate who can unify all wings of the party.
While primary polling is often all over the map, it’s been far more so this year with everyone from Donald Trump to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to, now, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich enjoying a run at or near the top of the field.
That all of these candidates — Gingrich excepted, for the moment — have had falls from the top equally as rapid as their rises speaks to the fact that, to quote an Irish band, Republican voters still haven’t found what they’re looking for.
That’s born out in the real world — geeks be damned! — where Republican voters spent most of the summer and some of the fall in search of a candidate who they could get genuinely excited about. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was supposed to be that guy but turned out to be less than advertised as candidate. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan didn’t run. Neither did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
And that leaves Republican voters with a series of not-great options (in their minds). Romney is clearly prepared and smart but doesn’t connect with conservatives. Gingrich is the flavor of the moment but will have to deal with questions about his discipline and demeanor. Perry seems not ready for primetime. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has devoted supporters but his isolationist foreign policy rings hollow with base GOP voters. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is regarded as too moderate (in tone if not in record) to appeal to core conservatives. And so on and so forth.
While dissatisfaction with your party’s presidential field isn’t anything new — remember that former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson’s 2008 candidacy grew from concerns about the lack of an electable conservative — it is odd that so large a contingent of Republicans would still feel less-than-thrilled about their choices.
(Typically as the campaign wears on, candidates get better known and actual votes draw near, doubts about the quality of the field lessen considerably.)
Democrats will, naturally, highlight the latest NBC-WSJ poll as evidence of the weakness of the Republican field and the lack of excitement about any of the GOP candidates among the party’s rank and file.
And that’s true enough. But, Democrats would also do well to remember their own 2004 presidential primary fight where voters were less than charged-up about their options (particularly after former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s implosion) and ultimately settled for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
Democratic enthusiasm wasn’t a problem in the general election, however, because the party was revved up to defeat President George W. Bush. (Yes, we know Kerry lost. But it wasn’t because of lack of enthusiasm within the Democratic base.)
New Gallup numbers in 12 swing states suggest something similar could well happen once Republicans pick their nominee. In that data, more than six in ten Republicans said they were enthusiastic about voting for president while less than half of Democrats said the same.
What all of the above suggests is that two seemingly contradictory notions could well be true in 2012: Republicans could be un-enthused about their candidate choices but very enthusiastic about voting President Obama out next November. And enthusiasm — not matter where it comes from — is still among the most critical elements to win an election.