Unless you’re seriously addicted to politics, presidential polls 30-plus months away from an actual presidential election are little more than will-o'-the-wisps, bits of numerical ephemera, digital detritus.
They can be (and usually are) overtaken by unforeseen events; think New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who used to be the man to beat among Republicans – and “Bridgegate.”
But as patterns begin to emerge, the picture can become more interesting.
At the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in New Hampshire Saturday, the conservative/libertarian – who, like his father retired Rep. Ron Paul before him, habitually ruffles GOP feathers – won a straw poll vote with 15 percent.
Coming along behind were Gov. Christie with 12 percent; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tied at 11 percent; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal with 9 percent; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 8 percent; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at 4 percent; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton tied at 3 percent.
What ho? Has second-place Christie been rehabilitated? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s the lull before the storm of more revelations about that spiteful bridge closure orchestrated by his staff to punish a Democratic mayor.
In any case, the New Hampshire presidential beauty contest mostly featured the usual suspects with Sen. Paul leading the pack.
It was the second week in a row that he’d done that.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland March 9, Paul took a whopping 31 percent of the vote. Trailing way behind were Cruz with 11 percent, Carson with 9 percent, Christie with 8 percent, Walker and Santorum with 7 percent each, and Rubio with 6 percent. Bringing up the rear were Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Ryan (3 percent each), and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (2 percent each).
That Rand Paul “rout,” as Politico.com headlined it (his second CPAC victory in as many years), no doubt had to do with who voted at CPAC: a demographic much younger than Republicans as a whole. Forty-six percent were ages 18 to 25, and 42 percent were students, many of them actively promoting the Kentucky senator – as they had his father, who won at CPAC in 2010 and 2011.
Notice that Rep. Paul Ryan blipped just 3 percent in both straw polls.
That may be because he’s viewed as damaged goods, having been number two on the GOP’s losing presidential ticket in 2012. Also, at a time when the Republican Party is trying to attract minority voters, Ryan has a problem.
On a radio talk show this past week, he said there is a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of work."
The Congressional Black Caucus called Ryan’s remarks about inner-city poverty "highly offensive.” He quickly acknowledged that his comments had been “inarticulate,” and he agreed to meet with the caucus.
Ryan gives no indication that he intends to run for president in 2016, and those 3-percent ratings in straw polls probably enlighten him on the subject.
But elsewhere, many Republicans apparently like what they see in the congressman from Wisconsin, who chairs the House Budget Committee.
A CNN/ORC International survey of Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP, released Sunday, has Rand Paul and Paul Ryan neck-and-neck (and leading all other Republicans) with 16 percent and 15 percent respectively. That’s similar to the results of a Quinnipiac national poll in January.
Lurking offstage as Republicans maneuver for position, and with no Democratic rivals in sight eager to take her on (unless you count Vice President Joe Biden, who’s a definite “maybe”) is Hillary Clinton.
Writing in The Week magazine, Mother Jones reporter Dana Liebelson speculates on what a Rand Paul vs. Hillary Clinton presidential campaign would look like. She writes:
“Perhaps Paul's biggest strength in this hypothetical campaign would be that ‘he does not look like, act like, or talk like a conventional politician,’ says Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. ‘Voters are extremely unhappy with the political system, and Paul's awkward sincerity status clearly taps into the disillusionment.’ John J. Pitney Jr., a political professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, agrees that ‘Clinton represents the intersection of money and political power, which so many voters have come to distrust.’ Indeed, there are few politicians in either party who are perceived as being part of the entrenched Washington establishment more than Clinton is. In that view, Paul's ‘outsider’ status could be a huge advantage. The flip side of that, however, is that Paul could well be painted by as an ‘amateur’ totally unprepared for the ‘pressure-cooker atmosphere of a prime-time election,’ Voss notes.”
CNN Polling Director Keating Holland offers a cautionary note to all of this: "With a crowded field and no clear frontrunner among the potential candidates, we should expect to see constant fluctuation in the amount of support most candidates get and the order of finish, so it would be easy to read too much into these numbers.”