Poll: The most popular 2016 candidate among Iowa Republicans is ... Paul Ryan?

You know the old saying: Iowa loves a RINO!

Seriously, though, of course it’s Paul Ryan. The earlier the presidential poll, the more the results are purely a function of name recognition. He was on the ticket last time so he’s the one guy more than any other whom even low-information Iowa GOPers could pick out of a line-up. No surprise that he’s got the highest favorables. Nor is it a surprise that Huckabee, who won the caucuses in 2008, comes second. Although given his flirtation with running again plus the fact that Ryan’s probably more likely to sit tight and run for Speaker when Boehner leaves than gamble on running for president against a strong field, Huckabee’s arguably the big winner here. If there was any doubt that his popularity in Iowa is durable, this should remove it.

Two other blogworthy wrinkles in the poll. One: Christie’s net favorable rating of +21 is the lowest of any of the 10 candidates tested, Jeb Bush included. On the other hand, his 44 percent favorable rating among independents is highest among all Republicans. That’s the Christie candidacy in a nutshell — he’s “electable” if his base can swallow their distaste for him — and that’s a harbinger of his coming dilemma about Iowa. Should he run hard there and try to put the race away early? If he consolidates centrists, as Romney almost did a year ago, and social cons and tea partiers are split three or four ways among right-wing candidates, he could pull the upset and then all but finish things off in New Hampshire. But if he competes and flames out, the press will be ready with “Christie on life support/NH a must-win” headlines. This is why I said on Friday that he’d benefit from having Huckabee run. If Huck jumps in and wins Iowa again, Christie will dismiss it as a social-con stronghold that doesn’t say much about anything. If Huck doesn’t run and Christie loses to, say, Ted Cruz, that’ll be read as a more broad-based grassroots uprising for the tea-party candidate over the centrist. That’s a harder narrative to cope with.

Which brings us to the other wrinkle. I would not have guessed, even factoring in his relatively low name-recognition, that Cruz’s favorable rating would be only 46 percent right now.

A favorable/unfavorable rating of 46 percent to 17 percent among Iowa Republicans might be sobering for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, given the heavy media coverage he’s gotten recently — for his laser-like focus on bashing Obamacare, his role in the 16-day government shutdown, and his three trips to Iowa since July.

On the most-popular scale, he’s tied for last, with the highest negatives of the bottom three.

“I would have expected for Ted Cruz’s numbers to be a bit stronger,” GOP strategist John Brabender said.

But Cruz is new — a freshman senator who had never been elected to public office previously, and had never set foot in Iowa until this year. The poll surveyed GOP adults; likely caucusgoers would almost certainly look more conservative, and those further right have a slightly different take on Cruz.

That’s an important point and makes Christie’s numbers look even worse. If all he can do is +21 among a sample of Republicans that’s certainly more centrist than participants in the 2016 caucus will be, he’d better think hard about skipping Iowa for New Hampshire. Even allowing for the fact that respondents here are more centrist and less politically knowledgeable than the next Iowa GOP electorate, though, I’m surprised Cruz’s profile is as low as it is. He’s the biggest star in tea-party politics right now; he was the face of the “defund” movement in October and got big press for his marathon floor speech against ObamaCare. He’s a regular on Fox News and appeared on “The Tonight Show” just a few weeks ago. And he’s made a few trips to Iowa already and was received ecstatically by the conservative crowds he spoke to. All of that, and yet his favorables are basically identical to Rubio’s. (Rubio’s unfavorable rating is actually slightly lower.) Everyone expects Cruz to be a serious contender in Iowa if he runs in 2016, which just goes to show how worthless these early polls are. But maybe that also means that Rubio’s on a stronger footing than we all expect. Eighteen months from now, if immigration’s still bottled up in Congress (which admittedly is unlikely) and Rubio’s continued to work hard to pander to righties, maybe he’ll be in the game. Worth laying down a marker about it now in any case.

Exit question: Hey, how come they didn’t poll Peter King? He’s got his own PAC now, you know.