Remember when Michele Bachmann was almost president of the United States?
It was July 2011, half a year before Iowa and New Hampshire would vote in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries. Two surveys, one by Public Policy Polling, another by Zogby, put the hard-right congresswoman from Minnesota ahead of the presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney.
As the early voting contests got closers, the polls became more volatile. At some point, Rick Perry, the Texas governor, was beating Romney 30 to 8 percent. In October, businessman Herman Cain had jumped ahead with 45 percent support in one poll. The next two months, it was Newt Gingrich’s turn. The former House speaker got as high as 40 percent.
Even when the primaries got underway, Republican voters weren’t ready to settle. Rick Santorum, a staunch social conservative from Pennsylvania, had a moment in the sun in February, rivaling Romney with the support of around a third of primary voters.
By March, it was over. Not a single poll didn’t give Romney a plurality. Most candidates withdrew the following month and Romney crossed the nominating threshold virtually unopposed in May.
The Republican Party is now at the same point it was in July 2011 to find a nominee for the 2016 election, and the foul-mouthed property tycoon Donald Trump is ahead in some polls.
Even if few observers expect him to get far, let alone win the nomination, his rise has shocked the party and prompted reflection (or worry) about its chances of winning the next election.
Trump’s popularity should not be altogether dismissed. Anecdotal evidence suggests his unapologetic and often over-the-top rhetoric resonates with rightwingers who are frustrated about the slow economic recovery, angry about almost eight years of Democratic Party government and desperate to “take their country back.”
But voters also admit they don’t really know what Trump stands for — and they’re not helped by the fact that the self-described billionaire seems to change his views whenever it’s convenient. Once they start listening to more than a few soundbites on the evening news, Republicans are likely to decide that Trump isn’t the best candidate and move on, just as they did four years ago.
Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein argues that, at this stage, endorsements by party leaders are a better indicator of how the nomination will turn out than early polling.
Polls that ask whether people like certain politicians at this point don’t really predict how voters will feel about those same politicians down the road. And perceived electability in November 2016 is a major reason to support a candidate, both for voters as well as for party insiders.
FiveThirtyEight keeps track of party endorsements and shows former Florida governor Jeb Bush and incumbent New Jersey governor Chris Christie ahead, albeit not far. Compared to Hillary Clinton, who has already been endorsed by almost 300 sitting Democrats, the Republican frontrunners hardly deserve the label at this point.
But Bush and Christie aren’t actually that far behind where Mitt Romney was four years ago, or John McCain in 2007, or even George H.W. Bush in 1987.
Elected party officials usually start making endorsements in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Once the early voting there and in New Hampshire has separated the real contenders from the also-rans, endorsements increase dramatically.
It looks like the Republican establishment will wait until close to or immediately after the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire before settling on a candidate. At this point, Bush is likeliest to become the favorite.
Right-wing primary voters, however, aren’t going to hand him the nomination. They probably realize that Bush represents their best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton — just as they figured Romney was their best chance of denying Barack Obama a second term — but they are going to size up the other candidates first.