The Iowa caucuses begin in 254 days. Not only do Republicans not have a clear favorite, but polls routinely show considerable support going to candidates who haven’t even thrown their hat into the ring. Case in point, a CNN poll released Friday puts Rudy Giuliani at the head of the pack of potential 2012 candidates.
16% of likely GOP voters said they would support the former New York City mayor. One point behind is the probable nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who picked up 15%. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin finished third in the poll, picking up 13% despite being undecided on whether she will enter the race.
You can be forgiven if you were unaware that Mr. Giuliani was a “candidate,” since Giuliani himself seems not to know whether he is indeed running for president. Indeed, CNN says it was informed by a Giuliani adviser that the former mayor is not taking active steps toward getting in the race. The extent of Giuliani’s campaign activity is a single trip to New Hampshire.
John Avlon, a former speechwriter to Mayor Giuliani, candidly summed up the broader meaning of the CNN poll:
It speaks to the serious vacuum in the current Republican field. I don’t know if Rudy will run – I take him at his word, that ‘the door is open.’ But the elephant in the room is that this is a weak crop of candidates, especially among the conventional wisdom front runners. And I think we will see draft movements emerge in the coming weeks and months. The key question for the GOP is what candidate can win a general election – and that means connecting with independent voters, who now make up more than 40% of the electorate.
There are two things to take away. First, Mitt Romney is probably the frontrunner. The poll finds that if Giuliani doesn’t run, Romney emerges with a four point lead over Sarah Palin (gulp) and a six point lead over Ron Paul (double gulp). Perhaps more importantly, Romney also leads in the “second choice” category. 15% of the polled voters said if they didn’t get their first choice, they would vote for Romney (second place goes to maybe-candidate Rudy Giuliani).
The second, and perhaps more important takeaway from these numbers is that unless some dynamite candidate whom we don’t know yet gets involved in this race, the GOP’s nominee isn’t going to inspire much enthusiasm from the base’s voters – something they will need to contend with Barack Obama’s grassroots army. Only 16% of GOP voters reported being very satisfied with the current field of candidates. Only a quarter of voters will be enthusiastic if either Giuliani or Palin wins the nomination. Only one in five will be enthusiastic if Romney takes the prize.
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