New frontrunner in GOP's 2016 New Hampshire primary: Mitt Romney, of course

Gut-check time: Am I enough of a hack to blog a poll as silly as this purely to goose my readers with a frisson of anxiety over another Romney run? Even by the usual hot-garbage standards of early presidential polling, this one’s hard to redeem. They’ve got a guy in the lead who’s definitely, assuredly not running — per the “Mitt” documentary, he only ran in 2012 because he knew he was next in line for the nomination — and they’ve omitted two guys in Marco Rubio and Scott Walker who very well might be. How informative is a poll like that? Even on a slow news day, it would take an unusually desperate hack to treat it as noteworthy.

So here you go.

If Romney were to run, he currently holds a lead in the New Hampshire Republican primary, with 25% of the vote. While Romney says he is not likely to run, it is instructive to note that he continues to cast a shadow over the primary at this early stage. He serves as a convenient “parking lot” for Republican voters who are waiting for other candidates to develop.

Of non-Romney candidates, Rand Paul has 18% of the vote, essentially tied with Chris Christie (17%), with Jeb Bush receiving 13%. Ted Cruz (7%) and Bobby Jindal (5%) round out the GOP candidates tested in this wave of the PurplePoll.

There’s truth to that, actually. Mitt “leading” the field here is tantamount to “undecided” leading the field. For some low-information New Hampshire voters, his might be the only name on the list that’s recognizable this early. What the poll’s really saying is that a decisive chunk of centrist-y Republicans in a key state aren’t (yet?) leaning towards Chris Christie, Romney’s centrist heir apparent. In fact, among Republicans, Christie’s favorable rating is 48/30; by comparison, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, who are roughly as well known to New Hampshire GOPers as Christie is, pull 59/15 and 53/16 favorable ratings, respectively. (Romney is at 72/17.) Christie does do a few points better with Democrats than any other Republican candidate but Paul beats him among independents with a 35/34 favorable rating compared to Christie’s 32/39. That’s the same problem that Christie encountered in PPP’s national poll: Because he’s less popular within his own party than many of his rivals, it’s crucial that he show he’s considerably more popular than they are with Democrats and independents. If his numbers across the aisle stay flat post-Bridgegate, the “electability” argument for nominating him evaporates. He’s got to either rebuild his image within the GOP, if he can, or/and rebuild it with non-Republicans. And the things he’d need to do for one of those rebuilding efforts mostly conflict with what he’d need to do for the other, especially as we get closer to the primaries. Polls this early may be garbage but if his numbers still look like this in six months I’d say they’re worth paying attention to.

Two other data points caught my eye. One is that, in the Senate, Scott Brown’s already even with Democrat Jeanne Shaheen even though he’s not running yet. Maybe those numbers will tempt him into finally pulling the trigger and make the GOP Senate takeover this fall a bit more likely. Two, it’s striking how unpopular the major presidential candidates from both parties are right now in New Hampshire. Of the 10 named in this poll — Obama, Romney, Hillary, Christie, Paul, Biden, Cruz, Jindal, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeb Bush — not a single one has a favorable rating that’s net positive. In fact, only three candidates are net-positive among either gender. Obama is among women, barely, at 46/45. Hillary’s way above water with women at 53/37, an early sign of why she’d be tough to beat. And, interestingly, Rand Paul is at 42/37 among men, the only candidate of the 10 to be net-positive in that group. Keep an eye on that going forward. If he wins Iowa or finishes strongly there (which isn’t hard to imagine given how well his father did in 2012) and his brand of libertarianism gives him some sort of inside track with New Hampshire’s mavericky male voters, he could win NH and all but finish off Christie.

Exit quotation from NYT reporter Nick Confessore: