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Lack of a GOP Front-Runner for 2012 at Odds With Republican History

4 years ago
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Although the contest for the GOP presidential nomination may seem far away (for all except those gearing up for it), there has been a lot of comment about the potential Republican field, ranging from those who regard it as weak to the fact that no one has emerged yet as a front-runner, at least according to polls.

Gallup says that situation is not typical. In reviewing its polling dating back to 1952, Gallup notes that in every presidential year up until now, there was a clear front-runner at this stage of the campaign and that, in most but not all cases, the front-runner won the nomination.

There have been a few twists and turns in that general pattern. It may have faded from memory now, but in 2007, Rudolph Giuliani was way out in front in Republican preference polls, leading John McCain by 42 percent to 25 percent in February of that year, with the remainder of support spread among other candidates or undecided. Giuliani faded fast after making the mistake of skipping the early primary states, and McCain, who had been the presumed front-runner aside from the 2007 poll, got a scare when Mike Huckabee went from a blip on pollsters' radar screens to winning the Iowa caucuses.

In February 1963, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was the clear favorite, leading Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater by 45 percent to 19 percent. However, Goldwater steadily crept up on Rockefeller and then passed him, and when former Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge entered the race, the three candidates were in a statistical tie in Gallup's last poll before the GOP convention. Goldwater emerged as the nominee.

As far as the current field of Republicans is concerned, the top four in Republican preference polls have consistently been Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. None has formally launched a campaign, although Gingrich -- who usually runs last in that group -- has come the closest. Last week, he filed paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service to explore a possible candidacy and launched a website, NewtExplore2012.

There is a large field of others who are unannounced but eyeing a race, like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But the challenge for these candidates, who all poll mostly in the low single digits, is that they are still largely unknown.

A Quinnipiac University survey released Monday found nearly all of those potential Republican candidates at the top of the list when it came to the percentage of voters who didn't know enough about them to express a pro or con opinion. These included former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (84 percent don't know him); Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana (78 percent); Pawlenty (67 percent); Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi (65 percent); and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (63 percent).

"History thus provides no guidelines for how today's highly fragmented Republican race might play out, or for when a strong front-runner is likely to emerge, or who it will be," Gallup said. "If the race remains close throughout 2011, it may also create unfamiliar political and fundraising dynamics for the national party."

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