A 2012 GOP Frontrunner? Not So Fast!

We're two and a half years away from the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses but that's not stopping the fevered pitch of speculation about who's up and who's down in the GOP, who might be running and who isn't.
Case in point: Gallup is out with a poll today that shows, "About one in four Republicans and Republican-leaning independents make Mitt Romney their top choice for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, giving him a slight edge over Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

"Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the choice of 14% of Republicans, with much smaller numbers choosing current Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Haley Barbour of Mississippi."

Now, while the blogosphere will light up about this "news," we should all take a deep breath before we start planning for the Obama vs. Romney debates.

Let's go ahead and turn on the time machine and go back and look at some early presidential polling in past years.

Gallup, Aug. 9, 2005: "There are two leading candidates for the GOP nomination at this point (should they end up running, of course): Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Twenty-seven percent of Republicans who are registered to vote pick Giuliani as their nominee, while 24% pick McCain. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice comes in third with 19%, followed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist with 9%, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 4%, and New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. George Allen with 3% each."

Friendly reminder: Giuliani didn't get past January 2008's primaries.

The poll continues: "On the Democratic side, there is no contest. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is chosen by 40% of Democratic registered voters. John Kerry and John Edwards -- both from the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket -- tie for second with 16% and 15% of Democrats' votes, respectively. Everyone else in single digits, including Delaware Sen. Joe Biden with 9%, and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark with 5%."

No contest on the Democratic side? Two and a half years later, Obama, who wasn't even in the poll, defeated Clinton in Iowa.

CBS News, Aug. 31, 2003, in response to the question, "Who would you like to see the Democratic party nominate as its presidential candidate in 2004--Howard Dean, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, Bob Graham, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman, Carol Moseley-Braun, Al Sharpton, or someone else?", 14 percent of registered Democrats chose Lieberman, 11 percent Dean, 10 percent said Gephardt and only 5 percent said Kerry, the eventual nominee - and this was only 4 and a half months before Kerry won the Iowa caucus.

Just six weeks before that, 66 percent of respondents told CBS News/New York Times pollsters that they couldn't name any of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination.

And this isn't a recent phenomenon.

Looking back through past CBS News/New York Times polls reveals some interesting numbers.

(CBS/The Early Show)
Sept. 1, 1978, Republicans: 32 percent preferred former President Gerald Ford over 29 percent for the eventual president Ronald Reagan. Ford didn't even run.

Nov. 4, 1986, Democrats: 28 percent preferred former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., (who dropped out after a sex scandal), 17 percent liked former Gov. Mario Cuomo, D-N.Y., who didn't run. The eventual nominee, former Gov. Mike Dukakis, D-Mass., wasn't included in the poll.

Oct. 21, 1991 (four months before the N.H. primary), Democrats: 27 percent preferred Cuomo (didn't run), 13 percent wanted Rev. Jesse Jackson (didn't run), 7 percent said former California Gov. Jerry Brown, 6 percent preferred former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder and, finally, 5 percent chose the eventual president, Bill Clinton.

So, now, according to Gallup, Mitt Romney is the frontrunner in a campaign that is many, many months from getting underway.

Yes, polls are a snapshot of what is going on at a particular time. However, if the poll question asks about something that hasn't fully formed yet, what does the poll actually tell you?

There is more tangible evidence about who may or may not be a viable candidate other than early polling.

Fund-raising (for instance, Romney's political action committee pulled in $1.6 million so far this year; Palin's over $700,000), travel, managing their public profile, helping out their fellow Republicans - over the next 18 months, whoever shines the most in these departments will boost their viability.

5132045Romney, Gingrich and Huckabee have a head start since they don't have day jobs. Palin is shedding hers at the end of the month; Pawlenty in January 2011.

Staying out of trouble should be also added to that list. Just ask former "potential" 2012 candidates who were widely considered "rising stars": Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Oh, and let's not forget that there may very well be a name or two that isn't on anyone's radar right now (see above: Dukakis, Obama).

As we continue to monitor the names mentioned in today's poll, it's probably wise to remember that there's more to a presidential contest than early polling numbers. A lot more.

Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' political director.

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.