Wednesday, June 8, 2011

State Primary Polls After Huckageddon

As we've seen, the 2012 Republican primary field changed dramatically with Huckageddon, Mike Huckabee's departure from the race. Other candidates (Donald Trump and Mitch Daniels) also dropped out during May. We had been receiving a steady stream of polling data, but recently there have been few state primary polls released. This is likely because pollsters didn't want to waste their time polling people on candidates who might then drop out.

Post-Huckageddon, there have been only a few state primary polls. You can view all of the state primary polls for the early primary states on the Primaries page. How does the race stand in the polling now that Huckabee's gone? And are early polls--even state ones--useful?

Here are the three state polls that have been released since Huckageddon. Note that two of them are by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic pollster:

05/30 PPP (D) -- Romney 21, Palin 15, Cain 15, Gingrich 12

New Hampshire
05/22 CNN/WMUR -- Romney 32, Paul 9, Giuliani 6, Gingrich 6

South Carolina
06/05 PPP (D) -- Romney 27, Palin 18, Gingrich 12, Cain 12

Obviously these polls look excellent for Mitt Romney, who leads in each state by a considerable margin. They're good for Herman Cain as well, who is moving from obscurity into the field (though not the top). Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich also do surprisingly well, considering all the heat Gingrich has taken, and the fact that Palin appears unlikely to run.

If the polls could be taken at face value, Romney will easily win the nomination. Unfortunately for Romney, they can't be taken at face value. As with the polls that showed Donald Trump doing well earlier this year, early polls measure name recognition most of all. Indeed, the "internals" of the PPP polls show that when they hypothetically poll the race without Palin, Romney gets more of her voters than the other candidates. What kind of voter would have Palin as his first choice and Romney as second choice? Someone who merely picks a candidate whom he can identify.

But toward the end of this year, as the primaries draw near, candidates who have low name recognition will become known to the early primary voters. Candidates who relied on high name recognition will fade. This occurred in late 2007, when Rudy Giuliani (who was the Republican's frontrunner according to early polls) and Hillary Clinton (who led her Democratic opponents by 20+ points most of the year) declined dramatically.

The polls do have their uses, however. Comparing apples to apples works: You can compare the numbers of candidates who both have high name recognition. For example, we can see that Romney is ahead of Palin and Gingrich. It's not as if Romney is ahead of them because he has higher name recognition.

You can also see that Cain, who lacks name recognition, is doing better than the other low-recognition candidates (like Bachmann and Pawlenty). There are some caveats, of course: Cain only appears on polls done by one firm (PPP), and only one poll per state. Also, Cain has shown vulnerabilities that could sink his campaign. Moreover, candidates who rely on charisma and excitement tend to have artificially-boosted numbers. After an ecstatic period, primary voters often settle down to a more sober, strategic choice. In 2004 for example, Democrats often said they "dated Dean, but married Kerry." That is, they liked Howard Dean and supported him in early polls, but they ultimately went with John Kerry, whom they considered more electable.