There is an upside and downside for the five (five!) Republican hopefuls tied for the lead at 10 percent in the new Quinnipiac University survey.
The upside: You are in the lead.
The downside: 90 percent of respondents did not want you.
Of course, such is the nature of a crowded field more than a year before the nominating conventions, more than half a year before actual primary voting, and more than two months before the first debate. In fact, I am more than pleased that Republican voters seem open to a wide variety of voices and approaches. It just doesn’t seem healthy to have a prohibitive frontrunner this early, like another party I could mention.
But with a fresh mountain of data to pore (not pour) through, let’s lay down the necessary disclaimers that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and that any given poll is but a snapshot of a given moment in time. Such snapshots are a very big deal on the eve of elections, but right now, they are little more than a tasty biscuit for political junkies.
But a few yummy morsels emerge, little observations that could become bigger once a string of polls begins to yield some patterns.
First, what is there to learn from our Top 5? The co-leaders are:
— Jeb Bush, whom we will probably have to deal with until real conservatives make clear they are really, really not interested, and that only happens at polling places;
—Marco Rubio, who has maintained momentum since his April 13 announcement in Miami, conducting himself with grace and style even through the silly season of the Iraq “if you knew now” question;
— Mike Huckabee, whom many people underplayed as yesterday’s news, apparently prematurely;
— Scott Walker, who has not been bursting from the headlines so much, making his continued frontrunner status additionally impressive. People are not forgetting him, his stellar Iowa Freedom Summit appearance in January, or his short but impressive gubernatorial track record as a conservative reformer and fighter;
— and Ben Carson, whose complete lack of political experience matches his complete lack of contrived campaign glaze, making him more intriguing with each passing week.
Now a deeper dig into each gentleman’s numbers:
Of course Bush will be a serious player from the starting blocks. He deserves to be. Until we get that Chris Christie or Lindsey Graham candidacy, he is the sole basket for that donor-class/safety zone/establishment vote that will seek a natural home.
Rubio is the only other candidate who would have been a surprise no-show in this group. He has been a household name for virtually all of his four years of Senate service, and his announcement was a big bang whose echo has not quieted. It seems every few days, he is in a headline somewhere, scoring points where can grab them, as in this week’s messaging that radicals on the left seek to identify Christian views as hate speech if not outright crimes.
It is Huckabee whose engine is fueled most by social-issues voters. For some reason, the survey team decided to winnow the answers of “White, born again evangelicals,” which should bring some annoyance to evangelicals of color, but let’s not bog down.
Among that community, Huckabee commands at 17 percent, with only Ted Cruz joining him in double digits at 10. This is a community that will peel off somewhat with the entry of Rick Santorum, whose announcement followed this poll. But for now, Huckabee can assert that in a season filled with hunger for fresh faces, there is an appreciable appetite for the man won Iowa in 2008.
It would have been easy for Scott Walker to enjoy flash-in-the-pan status after his Iowa event home run, but he remains attractive to many voters looking for steadfast conservatism in the package of an executive who has run a state. These are selling points we will hear from Rick Perry starting June 4, and perhaps from Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich to follow. But for now, in what was billed as a possible Year of the Governor, Scott Walker is The Guy.
And what can be said about the Dr. Ben Carson phenomenon? It would have been easy for his appeal to wither among the growing forest of thoroughly worthy conservative candidates. But that’s not happening.
It can probably be said that his views can be found in multiple other candidate position profiles, but his biography cannot. Nor can his style. This is the time when we start to brace ourselves for the programmed, risk-averse, over-handled behavior that envelops many candidates when so much is on the line.
Not so from the man who can separate conjoined twins fused together at the head. He has strolled onto the 2016 battlefield with the same unassuming, low-key straight talk that made him a star at The Most Famous Prayer Breakfast Speech Ever, barely two years ago.
If the top tier contains five names, the Quinnipiac poll offers a second tier containing four, if one defines the second tier as anyone getting more than two percent.
We begin with Rand Paul at 7 percent, who is doing two remarkable things at the same time— stoking legions of new and existing fans, and repelling many who admire him for everything but his national security agenda.
His fan base quivers with glee every time he bashes the NSA heroes whose efforts have helped keep us safe since 9/11. Every American seeks a proper balance between liberty and security. The ones who draw the line by stigmatizing virtually all metadata collections tend to be found in libertarian circles, frat houses, and the entire Democrat party. They are not, by any definition, mainstream Republican voters, especially in a campaign that will probably feature ISIS on the rise due to an insufficiently attentive America.
But there are enough in this crowd to keep Paul’s candidacy alive and even healthy, buoyed by the moments when he will inspire all conservatives with his devotion to limited government and constitutional fidelity.
The Rand Paul who calls for the repeal of Obamacare, a rollback in most foreign aid, and a dismantling of large swaths of bloated government is a candidate who could very well win.
The candidate who cannot shake his father’s favored slander— that America is to blame for terrorism because we have fought terrorists— has no chance of winning the GOP nomination. But he isn’t going anywhere, so get used to the rollercoaster rides he will take us on through the primary season.
The 6 percent garnered by Ted Cruz is largely a product of the 17 percent approval he received from voters aligning themselves with the Tea Party. This is a desirable base to cultivate, but Cruz knows he must broaden his appeal beyond the grassroots source of his stunning Texas ascendancy. He also knows that he has company in the Tea Party popularity ranks, with Walker at 13 percent, Rubio and Carson at 12, and Huckabee at 10.
At 5 percent, we arrive at Donald Trump, whom it is useless to criticize. Of course this is a sideshow. Of course he will not run. Does anyone believe Trump will sign up for the grueling tedium of a campaign season that involves sharing an attention pie with other people? But every candidate should note the source of Trump’s appeal. He projects a confidence and competence that attracts followers to a cause. He does not much care whom he offends, and does not suffer fools. I am intrigued to think where that 5 percent will go when he stops stringing us along and embarks on his next project that will reveal his devotion to his first love: Donald Trump.
At 4 percent, we enter the schizo world of Chris Christie. One day he will attract groans by pandering to Patriots fans in New Hampshire with a goofy defense of Tom Brady. The next day, he will roll into an event with that comfortable, engaging campaign style any nominee would do well to display, even while trotting out a track record of cafeteria conservatism. But on occasion, he will show sparks of being more than just another moderate, especially on national security, where he not only refuses to “stand with Rand,” but identifies Paulworld hero Edward Snowden as the criminal he is. Christie has something Jeb Bush completely lacks— the ability on some occasions, on some issues, to make true conservatives think his candidacy might not be brutally painful.
Nine candidates in, we get to that suddenly significant point in a drama where Fox News has decided it will allow only the top ten rivals on its debate stage August 6. In view of their magnanimous offer to allow anyone tied for tenth, if the debate were tonight, the last two lecterns would be reserved for Carly Fiorina and John Kasich.
Fiorina will rise on simple math. She is the only candidate who can take it to Hillary from the advantageous platform of shared womanhood. That may not be enough to make her the nominee, but it makes her unique. Throw in her superb campaign skill set, and she will surely find herself on a very short running-mate list, or even in a more surprising place: still standing after Super Tuesday March 1, when the candidate field will probably be pared to roughly five, if not fewer.
Kasich has been around a long time, which is probably not helpful this time around. But his winning campaign persona is, and so is his address in Ohio, a state we will be told constantly we must win.
Simmering in even lower digits at the moment are names who will surely rise to claim some of the pie-slices higher up in the Qunnipiac pack.
Rick Santorum has just announced, and will make some ripples among voters prioritizing social issues and a clear-eyed pledge to defeat ISIS. He will also bring the ups and downs of his redefinition as the purveyor of “blue collar conservatism.” The ups involve the praiseworthy task of reminding America that the best thing we can do for “working people,” even union members, is rediscover the American engine of job creation. The risks surround his new affinity for an increased minimum wage, an issue few conservative candidates will tackle because speaking marketplace truths makes them sound like uncaring louts compared to those who paint happy pictures of “helping” workers with greater job-killing government intrusion into what businesses pay employees.
Santorum wisely said of Mitt Romney in 2012 that we are unwise to send up a nominee unfit to battle Obamacare because of Romneycare. Santorum must address the fact that he agrees with Hillary Clinton on the minimum wage, an issue admittedly several rungs down the sizzle ladder.
Santorum brings most of the same package that won him Iowa in 2012 and landed him second when the nomination battle was over. The X factor is whether he can use those skills to climb over a field far more loaded with talent.<p>
If this has any chance of becoming a “Year of the Governor,” Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal will have to actually make a showing. Perry surely will and Jindal surely can. In a field this large, my definition of a “showing” is to earn a place on a debate stage and actually do well there.
Perry’s fifteen years of Texas stewardship is unmatched, and he will surely come out of the gate at his Dallas announcement next week sharper, more prepared and more humble than the candidate who gave us the infamous “Oops Moment” four years ago. In a time of war, he will proudly wear his veteran status, and he will wrap his states-rights, flat-tax agenda in a style that will yield plenty of fist-pumping moments at campaign events. It is hard to know whether this will propel him high into the second tier, much less the first. But I have long advised against underestimating him, and it will surely be invigorating to watch.
As it will if we see Perry’s neighboring Governor Bobby Jindal entering the race. At this oxygen-starved level of the standings, we are talking about candidates who need two things— amazing moments from their campaigns and several flame-outs from the strata above them. Funny thing is, both of those could be fairly likely. Jindal is great in a room of twenty or a ballroom of a thousand, and far better in TV segments than his unfortunately stilted State of the Union response in 2011.
So let’s conclude by returning to the packed debate field. We all know 14 or 15 candidates on a single stage is insane. So why not go with an idea gaining steam among those who do not want a cable news channel to leave decent, worthy candidates banging on the stage door? Draw straws. Seven random candidates debate for the first hour, the rest in another hour, maybe not even the same night. Shoot, give each group two hours. Imagine Jindal getting to constructively engage Bush, or Fiorina and Carson comparing their similar charms of zero days in office, or Texans Cruz and Perry sharing a moment or two. And imagine these moments lasting more than the brief seconds a ten-person debate would require.
This is a magnificent field brimming with people millions of voters want to hear from. There will be more polls, and more opportunities for instant armchair analysis. For now, the best way forward involves giving candidates every chance to show us the best they can bring.