Do polls about the 2016 race mean anything in 2013?

We may be more than two and a half years away from the first votes being cast in the 2016 presidential election, but that hasn't stopped the speculation about who's running, who's not, and who's popular with the American people. There were not one but two national polls out this week matching up the possible presidential contenders.

A McClatchy-Marist poll out on Tuesday compared how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden would fair against four different Republican candidates. In head-to-head matchups against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Clinton defeated all of them and Biden defeated all but Christie.

On Wednesday, a poll by Quinnipiac University showed that there was no clear front-runner for the GOP nomination. In a survey of Republican voters, Rubio led with 19 percent, followed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., at 17 percent, Paul at 15 percent, Christie at 14 percent, and Bush at 10 percent.

As CBS News' Steve Chaggaris wrote back in 2009 when the speculation began about the 2012 campaign, polls this far ahead of the election can be of limited value. Back then, eventual nominee Mitt Romney led the field in a Gallup poll, but the "field" included then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour - none of whom ultimately ran for president. A 2005 Gallup survey on the 2008 contenders is even more instructive. Clinton garnered 40 percent of the support from registered Democrats. One candidate not even in the poll? Then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

So what can we learn from these early polls? First, they can tell us about how American voters view the two political parties. Clinton and Biden's popularity over the Republican field suggests the GOP still needs to recover from its electoral defeat last November.

"We're seeing the aftermath of 2012 still casting a cloud on 2016," Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, said in a statement.

Second, these polls can raise or lower expectations for top-tier candidates. After a four-year stint in the State Department and away from politics, Clinton left the Obama administration with sky-high approval ratings. One poll gave her a 69 percent approval rating in January. But if Clinton decides to run, those numbers are likely to drop the second she makes her campaign announcement. The big question will be how much do they fall? 

Finally, for second-tier candidates, these polls can also show how much work they need to do in the coming months to boost their national profile. Democratic Governors Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, along with a handful of other politicians, are thought to have presidential ambitions. What can they do to lift themselves out of the dreaded "other" polling category?

With all that in mind, here's what the 2016 contenders were up to this week:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton returned to the public stage this week with two speeches to women's advocacy groups. On Tuesday, she addressed the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in Washington. And today, she is speaking at the Women in the World Summit in New York. Publisher Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS) also announced this week that Clinton is writing a book about her time at the State Department. And a super PAC unaffiliated with Clinton made news this week. The Ready for Hillary PAC officially launched, held a rally outside the Vital Voices event, and sent out a letter seeking support from former Clinton advisor James Carville.

Joe Biden: Biden also spoke at the Vital Voices event, and he and Clinton at one point walked on stage arm-in-arm. Biden heaped praise on his former Obama Administration colleague, telling the audience, "there is no woman like Hillary Clinton."

Martin O'Malley: The Maryland Governor spent part of the week shepherding his proposed gun control bill through the state legislature. The bill, which contains some of the strictest gun control measures in the country, passed the House of Delegates late Wednesday. It would ban assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets and require gun purchasers to give fingerprints and undergo training. "In our state it doesn't matter whether you move to the left or move to the right. It's whether you do common sense things to move forward and save lives and that's what this bill does," O'Malley said in an interview with the CBS Evening News.

Rand Paul: The New Hampshire Republican Party announced this week that the Kentucky Senator will the keynote speaker at the party's Liberty Dinner on May 20. That's 10 days after Paul is scheduled to be in Iowa for another Republican dinner. There were also reports this week that Paul has lent his name to fundraising pitches for the National Association for Gun Rights, a group that is targeting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, among others, for not being sufficiently pro-gun rights.

Marco Rubio: On Thursday, the Florida Senator again reiterated his opposition to new gun control measures. In an op-ed for Townhall, Rubio wrote that the current proposals being debated would do nothing to stop the kind of massacres that took place in Newtown, Conn., or Aurora, Colo., last year. "What advocates of indiscriminate gun bans fail to realize is that their efforts to legislate limitations on gun ownership will only work on those of us who are already predisposed to obey the law," Rubio wrote. "Since a disregard for law is the very definition of criminality, criminals will not be deterred by Congress' efforts to restrict their access to firearms."

Rick Santorum: The 2012 presidential candidate told Newsmax he is contemplating another run in 2016. ""I'm making no commitments at this point, but we're not doing anything inconsistent with running in 2016," Santorum said before taking a shot at the last two Republican nominees. "We have not had a nominee that is ready to go out and articulate a unified vision of what conservatism is, what American's first principles are about, and why we're the greatest country in the history of the world. And then we wonder why we don't win.''

Rick Perry: While some chuckled when North Korea this week said that Austin, TX was on its list of potential targets for a nuclear attack in the United States, the Texas Governor told CBS This Morning he's taking the threat seriously. "Anytime you have a country that has access to nuclear weapons you need to treat it as a very real threat," Perry said. "I think the individuals in North Korea understand Austin, Texas is a very important city in America as do corporate CEOs and other people who are moving here in record numbers."

Newt Gingrich: The former Speaker of the House told a National Review breakfast on Thursday that he's not closing the door on another presidential campaign. "I don't rule it out, but we're not spending any energy on it," Gingrich said. And he'll be in South Carolina, the early primary state he won in 2012, at the beginning of May. 

Ted Cruz: The South Carolina Republican party announced that the freshman senator from Texas will keynote the annual Silver Elephant Celebration on May 3. The event will also pay tribute to former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, whose endorsement of Cruz during his senate primary helped establish Cruz's Tea Party bona fides.

  • Caroline Horn On Twitter»

    Caroline Horn is CBS News' senior producer for politics.

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