Poll shows Mitt Romney leads in Iowa. Does that matter?

When the Mitt Romney name is added to the list of potential GOP White House candidates, he sweeps the field. But he says he has no interest in another run – and he probably means it.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (r.) shakes hands with his former vice-presidential running mate, US Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, before Mr. Romney interviews Representative Ryan about Ryan's new book, "The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea," during an event at the Union League Club on Aug. 21, 2014, in Chicago. Ryan is on a tour to promote the book as he weighs a presidential campaign of his own.

Mitt Romney has a big lead among potential Iowa Republican caucus attendees, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on Wednesday.

When Mr. Romney’s name is added to the list of potential GOP White House candidates, he sweeps the field, leading with a plurality of 35 percent of the vote. The second-place finisher, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, gets about 9 percent, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie takes the bronze with a tick over 6 percent.

These results are sure to add to the punditocracy’s chatter about a notional Romney 2016 run. The Mittster himself for months has said that he has no interest in repeating his losing 2012 effort and that it is time for somebody else, such as his VP candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to take up the Republican flag and try to win the White House.

But earlier this week on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Romney allowed that “circumstances can change." This has produced a burst of speculation about whether the former Massachusetts governor might actually be persuaded to run again, and how he would do if he did, and who his VP choice might be this time, and so forth. Talk is cheap on cable news in late August.

Actually talk is cheap on cable news at all times of the year, but that is another story.

Look, Romney is not going to run for president this time around. He has no incentive to put himself and his family through that experience again and has given no indication that he wants to do anything other than play the role of a party elder statesman.

After the “circumstances can change” comment, he gave the example of what sort of level of change he had in mind: Maybe everybody who runs in the primaries will at some point decide they can’t do it, get together, and implore Romney to run instead.

Romney puts the chances of this at one in a million, but given how strong-minded and self-centered you have to be to run for president in the first place, we’d put the odds of all other candidates voluntarily stepping aside at one in a trillion. If it happens, pigs will fly – and carry passengers.

That said, the new USA Today poll tells us something about politics and 2016. What it tells us is that individual surveys have to be approached with caution. It’s better if you can average results from different firms.

That’s because methodologies differ. And the way the Suffolk pollsters constructed their survey looks like it gave Romney an artificial boost, in our nonprofessional opinion.

First, they presented self-identified Republican voters with a list of the usual suspect candidates and asked respondents to pick a first choice. Mr. Huckabee won this heat, with 13 percent.

Then they asked a follow-up: “Thinking back to your first choice, if I added Mitt Romney to that list, would you still vote for [your first choice], or vote for Romney, or someone else?”

That’s like shining a light on Romney’s name. Implicitly, the pollsters are questioning the respondent’s first choice. The natural reaction of at least some would be, “oh yeah, he looks good now, maybe he would be better.”

We’re not in any way questioning the professionalism of the poll designers: They’re solid and know more about it than we do. But polling is at least partly an art, as well as a science, and it’s possible their first priority was getting a base-line reading on how the actual GOP candidates are doing in Iowa. Then they threw Romney in at the end just to see what would happen.

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