This week, the notion that GOP voters are none too enthusiastic about the field of 2012 candidates is starting to hit a critical mass. Why is that happenning? This CBS News poll is a big reason why:
A 56 percent majority of Republican voters told a CBS News/New York Times poll that none of the names officially or unofficially in the hat at this stage made them feel enthusiastic as potential nominees.
When asked if there was anyone they did feel enthusiastic about for the nomination -- without mentioning any names -- none of the contenders garnered more than 9 percent. That high of 9 percent went to Mitt Romney, with 8 percent saying they felt the same about Mike Huckabee, followed by 7 percent for Donald Trump, then Newt Gingrich with 5 percent, and Sarah Palin with 4 percent.
Apparently, people look at results like that and conclude that the GOP's chances in 2012 are irrevocably doomed. That's bizarre, for a very simple reason: the 2012 campaign hasn't started yet. As of this moment, the "2012 field of GOP candidates" comprises Fred Karger and -- as of today -- Gary Johnson. Who is "winning news cycles?" Reality-teevee candidate Donald Trump. Have I hit on anything that the average Republican voter should feel enthusiastic about yet? Didn't think so.
In this sort of environment, it's big news when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announces that "no one in the field excites me right now." But what are the chances that the eventual GOP nominee doesn't earn Haley's full-throated support? I'd say just about nil.
Republican voters have barely even begun to pay attention to the campaign and scrutinize the field.
A Pew poll released yesterday asked Republican voters to name the possible GOP candidate they have heard the most about recently. Trump took first place with 39 percent of the vote, but a close second was None/Don't Know, with 38 percent. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans couldn't even name a candidate they have heard about recently!
And as for the people they have heard about, many have declined to actually process the information they have gathered and form an opinion. Take this Times poll. While it's understandable that the vast majority of voters don't know much about guys like Jon Hunstman or Michele Bachmann or Tim Pawlenty, who have been bottled up in faraway lands like China or Minnesota for the past few years, many voters are withholding an opinion even for candidates who ran in 2008 and have been a near-constant presence since then. Thirty-five percent of GOP voters are undecided about whether they like or dislike Mike Huckabee? Forty-three percent don't know enough to form an opinion on Romney? That's just kind of bizarre.
Pawlenty and Romney (and Huckabee, should he choose to run) are going to take command of the 2012 field and the conversation that surrounds it as soon as they make formal announcements that they are running for president and begin actually competing with each other at primary debates. In the meantime, the fact that they do not dominate the news cycle in the manner of Donald Trump is a great advantage. Trump has, if anything, debased the discourse, and the Romneys and Pawlentys of the world are going to add gravitas to the race almost by default. In the meanwhile, they're not making any grave error by keeping out of the conversation, as long as they're working at building up their campaign infrastructure in the meantime.
That's where Huckabee, who has been slow to erect a campaign, is slightly disadvantaged. But to Huckabee, there's no great worry: he still dominates the presumed field in Iowa. He and Romney still run competitive races with President Barack Obama.
There is, potentially, a competitive 2012 campaign to be run -- but it will have to actually begin before anyone can realistically analyze how satisfied Republican voters are with it. Eight months from now, when the field is set and they've matched up with one another and the first caucuses and primaries are looming, we might have reason to revisit this and conclude the cat never quite jumped. But if you're a Democratic strategist and you're gaming out the next year and a half of your life based on the assumptions you've extrapolated from April 2011, you'd best prepare to have a back-up plan.
UPDATE: Jamelle Bouie adds: "This is almost entirely a product of name recognition, or the lack thereof."
For example, according to the Times survey, 80 percent of Republican respondents did not know enough about Gov. Tim Pawlenty to give an opinion on whether they viewed him favorably or unfavorably. Likewise, the same was true of Gov. Haley Barbour (85 percent), Jon Huntsman (90 percent), Michele Bachmann (75 percent), and Rick Santorum (76 percent). The only candidates to stand out form the crowd were Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. Accordingly, GOP voters had stronger feelings about each.