I think the answer is: At this point–when most Americans have yet to tune in to an election that is still more than a year away–these kinds of questions about candidates are meaningless, as are the national horserace numbers (at least when they are comparing well-known candidates against yet-unknown ones).
The fact is, national surveys at this point are driven by little more than name recognition. Here’s something Gallup had to say on that subject a few months ago.
UPDATE: Commenter Franco raises a question that reflects what a lot of our commenters are saying:
All of which leads me to ask: Why, then is 2/3 of what is written here about horserase numbers, meaningless polls and the amount of money candidates have raised? It’s not as if there aren’t any other important topics to be covered.
Here, in the spirit of engagement, is how I answer that (knowing that none of this is going to satisfy our most critical commenters):
First of all, this blog covers many topics (you might take a look at what we’ve posted about over the last 72 hours), though not always precisely the ones that our commenters would write about if it were their blog.
And some polls at this point are interesting. For instance, the numbers from individual states, particularly the early ones, tell you something about how well a particular candidate’s strategy is working (Romney is barely an asterisk on national polls, but leading in New Hampshire and Iowa, and struggling in South Carolina, despite spending a lot on ads there). The crosstabs–how a candidate is faring among women v. men, evangelicals v. secular voters–can give you some measure of a campaign’s organizational strength, and its weaknesses. And when you compare poll numbers for two well-known candidates–say, Clinton v. Giuliani–you get some insights into the electability question, which often becomes very important as primary voters make their final choices.
Another important measure, at least with well-known candidates, is favorability. The drop in McCain’s favorables last year, for instance, were an early and subtle indicator of where his campaign was beginning to run into trouble.
As for the money primary, while it’s not the only important measure (just ask Howard Dean), it is nonetheless an important one in the early going (just ask John McCain) and worth some discussion in any forum that calls itself a political blog–especially in an election where the table stakes are expected to be $100 million or higher.
What doesn’t tell you much at this early stage are national surveys comparing candidates who are well known against those who aren’t, or asking voters for their opinions of where the candidates stand on policy (as opposed to asking where the voters themselves stand on policy, which is interesting). National surveys usually don’t give you much useful information, because voters have not become as engaged as they will be six months from now.
So that’s how I look at things in the early stages of the race. What do you think?