Don't run, Condi, don't run!

Condoleezza Rice may top the list of prospects for the US Senate in a new poll, but that doesn't mean she can win in the sixth bluest state in the nation, especially once her role in the Iraq war resurfaces in a rough-and-tumble campaign.

Michael Fiala/Reuters
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waits to tee off on the eighth hole during the second round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., on Feb. 13, 2015.

The Field Poll recently asked likely California voters whether they would be inclined or not inclined to support various potential candidates for the US Senate seat that incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer will vacate after the 2016 election. Topping the list of 18 names was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with 49 percent. Some observers see great significance in this poll result, calling Rice “the early favorite” or “the leader in the race.” 

No, she isn’t.

This poll did not pit candidates against each other in hypothetical head-to-head contests.  It merely measured vague inclinations, and respondents were free to pick as many of the 18 names as they pleased. The results, therefore, are little more than a measure of name identification. Few of the others on the list are household names in California, and some of them would challenge even for the most ardent political trivia buffs. For some reason, Field asked about Ernie Konnyu, who served one term in the House decades ago, only to lose his seat amid charges of sexual harassment.

Dr. Rice is the only one of the 18 who has held an office of national prominence. She also has a particularly memorable name. (How many other Condoleezzas do you know?) So it is no surprise that a lot of Californians could spot her name on a long list.

But the survey does not mean that they would actually vote for her in a real election. If decades of survey research have taught us one thing, it is that most people know very littlenabout politics and government. Of the respondents who chose her name, how many specifically remember that she worked for George W. Bush? How many recall her ardent defense of the invasion of Iraq? In most cases, I suspect, respondents would only know that she once had some kind of important job, and nothing more.

If she ran for office, Democrats would tie her to the Bush administration and the Iraq War, both highly unpopular in California. (In 2007, Field found that 72 percent of Californians disapproved of President Bush’s handling of Iraq.) Political gravity would then drag her down, especially if Jeb Bush were on the November 2016 ballot. His name alone would provide another reminder of a brand that’s toxic in the Golden State.

The scarlet letter – R for “Republican” – would also be a tremendous disadvantage.  Republicans currently hold no statewide offices in California. Gallup recently found that Democrats have a 15-point advantage in party identification in the state, making it the 6th  most Democratic in the country.

Dr. Rice has had an extremely distinguished career in government and academia, but she has never run for office.  Political candidacy requires a certain skill set, which nonpoliticians often lack. In 2010, two prominent CEOs, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, tried their hand at statewide races in California. In an otherwise good year for Republicans across the country, they both lost badly.

Dr. Rice has indicated that she does not want to run. That decision is wise, and she should stick to it. The contest would be extremely unpleasant, and she would lose.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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