White House 2012 Polls: Not So Fast

by Nathan L. Gonzales December 15, 2008 · 10:05 PM EST

Barack Obama hasn’t even been sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, and the media can’t wait to name a leading candidate to take him on in four years.

Incessant speculation and polling are staples of today’s media, and any talk about the 2012 presidential race should be labeled as fantasy, not treated as news or analysis.

Not only are Americans — and many reporters — eager for a break after a seemingly eternal presidential race, but it is simply too early to predict which candidates will actually run for the White House four years from now and, more importantly, which issues will be center stage.

Four years ago, Obama had not yet been sworn into the U.S. Senate, after an easy general election win over Alan Keyes (R). Now, he is the president-elect.

Obama gave a memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, but no one predicted he would be standing on the steps of the Capitol taking the oath of office in January 2009.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken Nov. 16-17 in 2004 showed New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) defeating Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), John Edwards (N.C.) and John Kerry (Mass.) in hypothetical 2008 general election matchups.

A month later, another Fox poll showed Clinton defeating Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and New York Gov. George Pataki (R) in potential 2008 matchups. It also showed Kerry defeating Bush, 45 percent to 37 percent.

In addition, a Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates (R) survey taken Nov. 14-16 in 2004 showed Clinton defeating Edwards, 46 percent to 28 percent, for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. On the Republican side, Giuliani led Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), 42 percent to 24 percent.

A look at polls of presidential races going even further back proves early speculation is extremely premature, and most often wrong.

Eight years ago, speculation about the 2004 race was initially muted as the Florida recount and subsequent Supreme Court decision delayed the results of the 2000 race. But a Zogby International poll taken Dec. 15-17 in 2000 showed Vice President Al Gore leading the 2004 Democratic primary field. That’s not all that surprising because part of the electorate believed — and still believes — he won the 2000 race.

Clinton, who hadn’t yet been sworn in as the junior Senator from New York, was second in the survey at 18 percent. Former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) was third with 7 percent, and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the Rev. Jesse Jackson (D) and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) all received 5 percent or less.

Eventual 2004 nominee Kerry received 3 percent in the poll, just a couple points ahead of then-California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

Early presidential polls are more about name identification and past support, rather than revealing much about candidates’ future appeal and success, or the likelihood that they will run at all.

That’s why people should be very skeptical about all of this 2012 talk.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey taken Dec. 1-2, 34 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they were likely to support former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) if he were the party’s nominee. A similar 32 percent said they would support Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

The survey was not a horse race poll, pitting candidates against each other, but instead an attempted measure of party support. But of course, ranking becomes inevitable.

The survey is somewhat futile because the vast majority of Republicans are going to support the GOP presidential nominee, no matter who it is. McCain received 90 percent of the Republican vote on Nov. 4. And President George W. Bush received 93 percent and 91 percent in his two elections, but that’s beside the point.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) finished third with 28 percent, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) received 27 percent, Giuliani had 23 percent, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) had 19 percent, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) had 7 percent.

It’s a cliché, but four years is about two lifetimes in politics. Four years ago, Palin was the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the former head of the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and barely even known in Alaska. Now she is regarded as one of the national leaders of her party.

It’s impossible to recognize all of the potential candidates that could affect the dynamic of the 2012 field. And it’s too early to start tracking trips to Dubuque, Iowa.

A Selzer & Co. Inc. poll taken Jan. 15-21, 2001, for the Des Moines Register showed Gore leading the field in the Hawkeye State with 39 percent. Clinton was second with 12 percent, and Gephardt was third with 9 percent, followed by Kerrey (6 percent), Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (5 percent), South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle (4 percent) and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (4 percent).

Of those seven candidates, only Gephardt participated in the 2004 Iowa caucus, and he finished fourth with 11 percent. Kerry, who tied for ninth place and received 2 percent in the 2001 poll, ended up winning Iowa with 39 percent. Edwards (32 percent) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (18 percent) finished second and third but were not part of the early speculation.

Before the handicapping can begin, it helps to know who is actually running.

An early January 1997 poll by Opinion Research showed Colin Powell leading the 2000 GOP presidential race with 32 percent. Former Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.) was second with 15 percent, and Bush was third with 10 percent. Of course, Bush won the nomination and the presidency, while Powell and Kemp didn’t even run.

On the Democratic side, polls in early 1997 showing Gore with the advantage in the 2000 race proved to be correct. But he was the heir apparent for the Democratic nomination as the sitting vice president under a term-limited Bill Clinton.

Back in December 1992, Kemp was the first choice of Republicans for the 1996 race with 17 percent, according to a poll for Gannett News Service. White House Chief of Staff James Baker was at 16 percent, while Kansas Sen. Bob Dole received 15 percent and outgoing Vice President Dan Quayle had 13 percent. Even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney received 9 percent. Of the five candidates, only Dole ran.

It is still unclear how many of the current field of conventional wisdom candidates will actually run in 2012. But there are other unanswered questions.

How do the former officeholders stay relevant? By the time 2012 rolls around, Gingrich and Giuliani will have been out of office for more than a decade, while it will be six years each for Romney and Huckabee.

Besides the volatile list of potential candidates, it is even more impossible to predict how voters will prioritize issues in four years.

Just a year ago, the war in Iraq dominated the news and boosted Obama to the Democratic nomination. When the general election rolled around, the economy was far and away the top issue on voters’ minds and helped the Illinois Senator defeat McCain.

Because the economy is in such tough shape, it is not unreasonable to predict that it will be the top issue again in 2012. But who knows for sure? One terrorist attack or major international event could shift the issue landscape back to foreign affairs.

And if foreign policy is the top issue, how does that affect a potential GOP field of candidates largely void of significant overseas credentials?

Obama’s presidential candidacy and election demonstrates that most of politics is timing and factors outside of a candidate’s control. Without knowing the issue landscape, it is impossible to handicap the potential field of candidates.