What Can 2009 Tell Us About 2012?

HOWARD MEGDAL: What can 2009 tell us about 2012? If we’re talking purely polls, not a lot. After all, last election cycle, I was the one arguing that the Rudy/Hillary matchup simply wasn’t going to happen, no matter what the polls were saying.

But while I normally fall into line with the FiveThirtyEight.com view on political questions, I think the takeaway from this set of polling questions isn’t that Mike Huckabee deserves more respect. Rather, it reinforces just how commanding position Sarah Palin is in for the 2012 GOP nomination.

Nate Silver notes, correctly, that Mike Huckabee does a bit better against Barack Obama in a trial heat than the other three polled: Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Palin. But notice that the difference between Obama/Huckabee and Obama Palin is slight- in fact, Palin polls at 41, Huckabee at 42, but more Democrats go home to Obama when Palin is the pick.

That is telling itself, since before Obama/Palin or Obama/Huckabee, there must be Palin/Huckabee, and Democrats can’t vote in that matchup (for the most part). When the same poll measured approval ratings of the four Republicans in question among conservatives, Palin easily had the highest positive rating of the four, besting Huckabee, 67 percent to 56 percent.

In other words: among the voters who will actually decide the GOP nomination, Palin is at the top of the list. She enjoys conservative support that Rudy Giuliani simply never approached.

So polling matters. But what polling, who is being polled, and what choices a candidate is likely to have to make between the date of the poll and the 2012 primary matter, too.

And Palin shouldn’t have to make many unpopular choices for conservatives between now and then. Indeed, beyond making sure she is re-elected in 2010, all Palin has to do is raise money and continue in the spotlight. (If she’d stop elevating the father of her illegitimate granddaughter to the level of debate partner, it would help, too.)

The next big test will come in June, when SaraPAC has to report its financial haul. Should the money fall into line with her level of support, the Palin snowmobile will seem even more unstoppable.

For the limitations of the others polled, look no further than 2008. We know how palatable Mitt Romney is to the rank-and-file GOP primary voter-they’d sooner choose John McCain, someone never loved by the GOP base. And Mike Huckabee managed to upset the establishment GOP with his departure from party orthodoxy, while never inspiring the religious right to provide the financial support they gave to, for instance, George W. Bush.

While Newt Gingrich hasn’t been recently discredited, there is little evidence outside of television producers willing to put him on the air that he has any national following to speak of at this point.

Now, it is true that someone not currently on the map could come along and take the nomination. After all, Barack Obama was well behind Hillary Clinton at this point in the last cycle. But that person will need to make major inroads with a party that loves Palin, not a party that liked Clinton. That person will need to match Palin’s likely fundraising juggernaut. That person will need an issue akin to the Iraq War to use against Palin (again, among conservative GOPers). And that person will need to follow through with the political talent of Barack Obama.

In other words, the smart money is on Sarah Palin. Because of polls, yes, but because of the rest of her political profile, too-and that which is lacking in the rest of the GOP.

CHRIS PUMMER: Let’s hold off on planning the Sarah Palin coronation ceremony for now. Because besides a handful of primary polls, which are notoriously unreliable even up to the eve of an actual primary election, there’s not a lot of hard evidence to suggest the Alaska governor has the inside track on the Republican nomination.

The biggest problem is that declaring a favorite now assumes the political landscape will be the same in three years as it is today. With the Republican party trying to re-establish its identity, the 2010 mid-term election could create a seismic shift within the party — the result could welcome new voters into the fold or push even more out.

But even assuming Republicans don’t change between now and 2012, Palin still has plenty to prove before waltzing to a spot on the top of the ticket.

For starters, she’ll have to prove she can run a competent campaign. The first test of that probably won’t come until her fundraising numbers come out in June. But there are already indications that things might not be so rosy.

In addition to raising money, the Palin camp will also have to show its ability to organize the would-be foot soldiers. It will have to prove that Palin is electable, which that same PPP poll suggests she is anything but in a general election.

While it might be the hard-core conservatives that will choose the Republican candidate, it’s selling those voters short to think they wouldn’t jump ship to a more electable alternative should one be presented.

And there will be alternatives. Mitt Romney is already out raising money, plus will enjoy the support of the Republican establishment. And for all the talk of how he was coolly embraced by primary voters in 2008, Romney might have only been 3 percent of the vote in Iowa and 4 percent in New Hampshire from winning the Republican nomination.

Huckabee, who acutally captured a fifth of the primary vote in 2008, will surely be able to build a better fundraising machine than he did in 2008, with the idea that he’s electable being the campaign’s best selling point.

Gingrich probably doesn’t stand much of a chance, but his inclusion in this kind of poll really just underscores how silly it is to try to forecast a primary election three years out. The field is far from defined, and who knows who will be running, much lessĀ  be able to steal air away from Palin’s or anyone else’s potential bid?

While a damaging YouTube moment can very well ruin a candidate’s chances this early in a presidential election cycle, it’s really too early to say anyone is a commanding favorite.

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