Palin either slightly ahead for GOP nomination ... or way behind

Ah, the travails of polling!  Attempting to handicap a race when it hasn’t really started — and when the contestants haven’t yet entered the arena — is a tricky business.  Reuters and Fox News team up this week to demonstrate just how tricky it can be.  While Reuters declares Sarah Palin as the front-runner in its latest survey, Fox News scores her as an also-ran — as does Quinnipiac in a third poll this week.

First, Reuters reports that Palin took a slight lead over Mitt Romney in their latest survey:

new Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday afternoon finds Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney statistically tied in the race for the GOP nomination—with 22 percent of likely GOP votes supporting the former Alaska governor and 20 percent choosing the ex-governor of Massachusetts.

That’s in direct contrast to a new Quinnipiac Poll released earlier this morning, which had Romney leading Palin by 10 points.

Quinnipiac has the breakdown at Romney 25, Palin 15, with Herman Cain following at 9 percent.  That’s better for Palin than Fox News’s poll, which has their own special correspondent in third place at 12%, eleven points behind Romney and a single point behind Rudy Giuliani, who wasn’t included in the Q-poll or (apparently) the Reuters poll, either.

In fact, the survey results from Fox seems harsh, considering Palin’s role at the news channel, although that’s a bit overstated in their report:

In addition, more voters believe Romney is very or somewhat qualified to be president than any other contender tested.  Setting aside how they would vote, about two-thirds of all voters (68 percent) think Romney is qualified, followed by Gingrich at 58 percent, Pawlenty at 43 percent, Palin at 41 percent and Cain at 32 percent.

Of the candidates included in the poll, only Palin is viewed as not qualified to be president by a majority of voters.  Many voters are unable to rate Cain and Pawlenty.

Among just Republican primary voters, 85 percent think Romney is qualified and 81 percent think Gingrich is.  For Palin, 67 percent of GOP primary voters think she is qualified, 57 percent say the same of Pawlenty and 49 percent believe Cain is qualified.

Winning matters more than issues.  By a wide 20-percentage point margin, GOP primary voters are more likely to say it’s “very important” their nominee can beat Obama (73 percent) than to say it’s “very important” for the nominee to share their views (53 percent).

Two-thirds of Republicans believe she’s “qualified” to be President, but not the general public.  In part, that’s what a campaign is intended to demonstrate.  Palin hasn’t even announced for the race yet, and one can certainly wait to see whether Palin can make her case if and when she enters.  Furthermore, Romney, Cain, and Pawlenty are all announced contenders for the nomination, while Palin hasn’t even begun an exploratory committee — which makes polling on her (and Giuliani, and Rick Perry, among others) fairly unreliable, as voters might give more weight to actual candidates than hypothetical ones.

The polls are fun to follow and to analyze, but results like these remind us not to take them too seriously at this stage.  We won’t see solid numbers until after Labor Day, and they’ll still be fluid until Thanksgiving — especially in a race without a breakout frontrunner.  If one needs proof of that, just remember that Hillary Clinton was the runaway frontrunner for the Democratic nomination until she stumbled in debates at the beginning of December and gave a one-term Senator with no executive experience an opening to exploit.