Archive for Monday, March 13, 2006

Early polls carry little clout

March 13, 2006

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Polls say the darndest things.

Take the idea that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He does get the best numbers in some recent surveys, but some believe skepticism about those numbers might be in order.

It is not, as the axiom goes, that liars figure and figures lie.

It is more a question of whether poll results challenging the conventional wisdom that he is too much of a social liberal to win the GOP nomination are a better barometer of his actual chances.

Giuliani is not acting all that much like a presidential candidate.

He's not making the rounds of Iowa and New Hampshire extensively, nor starting to put together the kind of organization one needs to run for president. He's making money and speeches, although doing nothing to throw cold water on the idea he might run.

But he is invariably thrown into polls about 2008 aspirants.

The reason that some in the politics business question those results is that the skeptics don't think he will sell well to socially conservative Republican primary voters, especially in the red states that George W. Bush carried in 2000 and 2004.

The insiders know Giuliani favors abortion and gay rights and gun control. They believe that being on his third wife and having been accused by his second of "open and notorious adultery" will not play as well in Manhattan, Kan., as it did in Manhattan, N.Y. Then there is his 1994 endorsement of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a liberal Democratic icon, over Republican George Pataki, which could certainly come back to haunt him in a GOP primary.

That's why they question the ability of the poll results to forecast how he would do if he actually sought the GOP nomination.

When the Quinnipiac University poll asked registered voters nationally to rate their feelings toward more than a dozen politicians, most of whom are running for president in 2008, he scored best by a healthy margin.

And, Giuliani ran almost evenly across the country, getting essentially the same ratings in the states George W. Bush carried in 2004, the ones won by John Kerry, and those in which the margin between the two was less than 5 points.

Then there was the Quinnipiac poll of registered Republicans in Florida, the heart of GOP America, in which he beat Sen. John McCain of Arizona, generally considered at this point to be the most likely 2008 nominee, by almost 20 points.

Another poll by the Cook Political Report/ RT Strategies found the two men running even among self-identified Republicans and Republican leaners.

That poll then reminded those voters about Giuliani's leadership following 9-11; accomplishments cleaning up New York City; and of his positions on guns, gays and abortion. It then asked whether Republicans should nominate Giuliani and by a 50 percent to 43 percent margin they said the party should.

Now, the key issue about Giuliani, beyond whether he will even run, is how "Joe and Jill" Republican will react during a primary campaign in which his personal history and political views will surely be used against him.

There is no inconsistency between Giuliani's strong poll ratings and the conventional wisdom. Most Americans pay little attention to the details of a candidate's positions until a campaign begins.

Giuliani's reputation as a strong leader - perhaps the most sought- after image by a White House aspirant - gives him a big edge should he run. And should he win the nomination, the poll results showing him able to win the November election might be more valid than the data on the GOP primaries.

However, it is important to remember two truisms about Republican nomination politics:

¢ Because of the way GOP delegates are apportioned, states in the culturally conservative Sunbelt and mountain west that voted for Bush have disproportionate clout in picking the presidential nominee;

¢ Rarely do more than 25 percent of registered Republicans actually vote in the primaries, and they tend to be much more conservative on social matters than other Republicans, much less Democrats and independents.

None of this means that if Giuliani chooses to run he won't be nominated. But it does make a reasonable case that the early polls on 2008 might be worth taking with a generous grain or salt.

Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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