Don’t Believe The Hype: The GOP Primary Field Is Not Disappointing

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Just how bad is it for Republicans? Multiple choice: A) 76% of Republicans are dissatisfied with their choices for President, says Zogby. B) Only 40% of Republicans are satisfied with their choices, says CBS News. Or C) Just 52% of Republicans are satisfied, says Newsweek.

Answer: None of the above. Those are trick answers. Those polls were done in 2007 and 2008, the last time political journalists seized on the theme that the current slate of Republican candidates are historically disappointing. It is, as David Lynch aptly put it, happening again.

Here is the Associated Press Monday, worrying about the dismal choices facing the GOP electorate.

Yet, the GOP faces plenty of its own troubles. Its field lacks a front-runner. Most of the candidates are largely unknown to Republicans. The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll indicated that only half of all Republicans were satisfied by their choices and a third were dissatisfied.

Over at the Washington Post, Dan Balz strikes the same note, noting that the low satisfaction is even lower than last time around.

So far, the GOP race has been notable for its slow start and the absence of a front-runner. It has been marked by unhappiness among potential voters. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that barely four in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they are satisfied with the current field of candidates — about 20 percentage points lower than at this time four years ago.

Say I wanted to sell you a car. I tell you I had five models for sale. I even named them for you, a Nissan Torch, a Chevy Zoom, a Ford Moonbeam, a Honda Galaxy and a Volvo Dominator. But then I told you that you could not see the cars, as they were not yet off the factory lines. Would you be satisfied with your choices? No. Would that mean that you did not like the five cars, or that you would never be satisfied with them? No, again.

The 2008 campaign for President began in late 2006. By the second month of 2007, most of the candidates had opened headquarters, begun to raise money and were running in earnest, with packed schedules and full-time press operations. This time around, candidates are still playing coy in late April. Comparing disappointment with the GOP field in 2007 with the disappointment in 2011 is like comparing an apple on display with an orange in a sealed box.

In 2007, people used to talk about Rudy Giuliani as the early front-runner. Giuliani never got more than 15% of any state’s primary vote, and entered the 2008 GOP convention with zero delegates. His 2007 front-runner status was about as valuable as a deep-fried snickers bar at the Iowa State Fair.

This time around, there is no clear front-runner in the polls, even if the candidates, by consensus, seem to be looking at Mitt Romney as if he was one, and for good reason. Is this fact any more meaningful? Not really.

The truth is that the field is still taking shape, and many of the serious candidates remain upside down in terms of name recognition. (Jon Huntsman, who may still announce and is at 21% name recognition among Republicans, is still serving in China as ambassador, barred by law from even talking about a run.) Putting too much stock in the low satisfaction of the GOP field risks confusing cause and effect.

Now it is possible that once Republican voters get to kick the tires and look under the hood, they will still be disappointed. But we won’t know if this for months, and if those months are filled with media speculation about how much the current candidates stink, the political process will not be well served. In fact, it seems unlikely that the sort of malaise that John McCain struggled with in 2008 will be repeated in 2012. Ever since 2009, Republicans have demonstrated real and growing enthusiasm advantages at the polls. With the economy still struggling and gas prices rising, there is no sign of that advantage going away anytime soon.