Both media outlets and straight-up polling firms keep offering survey after survey about the state of the presidential primary fight, leading to lots of analysis and even some handicapping on the field, especially among Republicans. Does this reflect deep consideration from voters? According to a Pew poll earlier this week, not exactly. Voters remain unengaged in the fight, even more than in 2008, when both parties had similarly open fields (via Dan Doherty):
The 2016 presidential campaign has gotten off to a slow start with voters. A majority of registered voters (58%) say they have given at least some thought to candidates who may run for president in 2016, but that is 10 points lower than at a comparable point in the 2008 campaign – the last time both parties had contested nominations.
Yet, even at this early stage, the vast majority of voters (87%) say they care a good deal about who wins the presidency, and 72% say they care which party prevails.
The latter figure here, though, suggests nothing more than the standard red team/blue team base. In 2010’s midterms, for example, the D/R/I from exit polling was 35/35/30. Applied in a presidential race, that’s 70%, within the MOE of the Pew result. In 2012’s presidential exit poll, the split was 38/32/29 — back to 70%. In 2014, the D/R/I was 35/36/28, putting it at 71%. The exact percentages of people who vote for the two parties may shift around a bit, but anything around 72% is a pretty consistent result.
This is what people need to keep in mind when they see primary-campaign polling at this early stage:
Eight years ago at this stage, Hillary Clinton was cruising to a coronation, and the Republican field was a muddle. Sound familiar? Here’s why: Hillary Clinton had the highest name recognition in the field in both parties, and the GOP hadn’t primed a successor to George W. Bush. Given how popular Bush was at the time, it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. In 2015, Hillary Clinton has the highest name recognition in the field, and the GOP seems to have finally moved away from the next-in-line dynamic, allowing their talented bench an opportunity to come to the fore.
In the meantime, however, most voters haven’t engaged enough to distinguish candidates on any basis except name recognition. Hillary will come out on top in that context for the same reason she will be very vulnerable in a contested primary and general election: she’s been in Washington for almost a quarter-century. She’s the establishment squared, plus a celebrity to the media. There’s a reason why Hillary isn’t campaigning now, and that’s because those are her best qualities. Once voters actually get a good look at her, they like her a lot less, a pattern that goes all the way back to 1992.
So yes, the early polls can be fun to track and analyze, but don’t expect them to be anything more than a name-recognition measurement. Jeb Bush has also been around a long time, which is why the establishment tag will hurt him in the long run, too. If Scott Walker and other outside-the-Beltway figures begin rising, that’s worth noting, but mainly for the success of their market penetration. We won’t see solid data out of these polls until the primary debates begin, and they won’t really be reliable until probably late November or early December. That’s when most voters will start to engage intellectually in the race, and when we’ll get a sense of who’s truly moving the needle.