by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
There’s still plenty of 2015 left to live before the next presidential election year. That hasn’t stopped a significant number of Republicans from moving forward now to choose their preferred candidate, according to Byron York‘s latest article for the Washington Examiner.
It’s conventional wisdom that the 2016 Republican presidential race is at such an early stage that the polls don’t matter. They’re just a measurement of name recognition at this point, some observers say, and the only people really paying attention to the campaign are reporters and hard-core party activists.
Maybe that was true in earlier years. But it doesn’t seem to be the case now. “One thing about this election — Republicans are paying attention,” says a GOP pollster not affiliated with any campaign. “They are very concerned about who the nominee is going to be, and the idea that what a candidate says now doesn’t matter could not be farther from the truth.”
Look at the new CNN/ORC poll, out Monday morning. First of all, it’s a huge field, and no candidate dominates — Jeb Bush is in the lead with just 17 percent. But nearly all the respondents surveyed have picked a candidate to support; add together every candidate’s little share of the vote and the total nears 100 percent, with few undecided. …
… Add it up, and that’s 94 percent of Republicans who say they support a specific candidate now. The rest — a pretty tiny number of undecided — say they can’t make a decision or have no opinion.
Of course, that’s just for now. Many will change their minds, but they are already taking the race seriously.
At this point, many voters are likely making preliminary decisions based on very little information. They know Scott Walker fought unions in Wisconsin. They know Jeb Bush is George W. Bush’s brother and George H.W. Bush’s son. They know Ted Cruz was involved in the government shutdown.
“That’s why these announcements are important,” says the pollster, “because it is the first time to associate more facts with each candidate. And you’ve seen each candidate get a little bump when they announced.”
Some analysts describe this period as the “pregame.” The real game starts at some point in the future, perhaps in August when the first Republican debate takes place in Ohio. But the pregame, if that’s what it is, matters too. Candidates are getting their only chance to make a first impression.