More 2012 Myths

I wrote a column on 2012 myths and misconceptions back in June discussing conventional wisdom that doesn’t necessarily match up with reality. However, we just scratched the surface of the political myth-making business. Several more common memes deserve to be busted.

Myth: 2012 primary polls are legitimate news.

Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney have all led trial heats for the 2012 race for the GOP nomination that have been taken in 2009. None has topped 30 percent in any poll, and, generally, all three are within six points of each other. So what does this all mean?

Nothing. Perhaps even less than nothing.

Since I write about 2012 frequently, taking on this myth is akin to a pro-wrestler admitting that pro-wrestling is fixed. However, national 2012 primary heats (particularly those taken 1-3 years before the election) should be regarded with all the seriousness of an MSNBC online poll.

They may be fun, but they aren’t serious news. The polls are, to quote a classic TV line, “very interesting, but stupid.” There are two reasons these trial heats don’t matter.

First, we don’t know which candidates are running. The latest Rasmussen poll assumes candidacies by Palin, Huckabee, Romney, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS), and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). What if Palin, Gingrich, and Barbour, who got a combined 39 percent of the vote in the Rasmussen poll, decide not to run? Until we know who’s running, trial heats are pointless. It’s like asking someone to bet on who’s going to win the heavyweight boxing championship without knowing who’s fighting.

Second, national polling would be fine if there were a national primary, but there isn’t. The national poll numbers tells us nothing meaningful because we have a primary process where the votes of early states drastically change the race in future states. Rudy Giuliani continued to show strong national poll numbers long after his campaign effectively began its collapse.

The numbers in trial heats only reflect name recognition at a national level. For example, Huckabee and Romney were both nonentities in national polls taken throughout 2007, but emerged as two of the top contenders for the nomination based on Romney’s money and organization and Huckabee’s performance in Iowa.

National trial heats have no predictive power. Doing more polling in early primary states would have some merit, but those voters aren’t focused on the campaign yet, so the results will still be based solely on name recognition.

If there’s one value to a 2012 poll, it’s favorability numbers. The internet conversation is often dominated by people who loathe Huckabee, Palin, or Romney, and these loathers often assume all who don’t favor their own candidate of choice loathe him or her. In truth, polls show the loathers are in the minority. Any of these three would have an easier time uniting Republicans than did John McCain.

However, the headline news of a 2012 poll is a worthless piece of filler that serious people shouldn’t waste time on.

Myth: Mike Huckabee’s performance in the 2008 primary indicates a 2012 campaign will be a bust.

Joshua Lodell of the Detroit Examiner lays out this bodacious case:

In any potential battleground state, Huckabee did rather poorly; he finished 3rd in Michigan, and 4th in Florida. He was also unable to win South Carolina. This is important since any potential GOP candidate is going to have to win South Carolina, Florida and make Michigan competitive. If that is the case, nominating Huckabee at this point would seem to guarantee a second Obama term.

This narrative has three problems. First, it smacks of the Clinton campaign’s narrative during the primary campaign that Obama’s losses in seven of the eight largest states in America meant that he couldn’t win. In the fall, Obama carried seven of these states. Thus, it was proved that the primary is not the general election.

Secondly, it assumes what Huckabee did in 2008, he’ll do in 2012. Senator McCain’s 2000 campaign won only one state outside of the liberal northeast and his home state of Arizona -- Michigan. In 2008, McCain lost Michigan, but won in many states in which he lost by wide margins in 2000, such as California and Missouri.

Third, it ignores the reality of the 2008 campaign, which came down to momentum, media, and money.

On the momentum front, McCain’s win in South Carolina was pivotal and without it, he would have dropped out. Conservatives were urged to vote for Romney to stop McCain. The media ruled the race a two-man battle with the choice being between McCain and Romney. That Huckabee even managed to win the states he did under these circumstances was a minor miracle.

A stronger argument could actually be made against Romney’s electability based on 2008 results. While Romney won eleven contests, eight of these were state caucuses where Huckabee and McCain didn’t have the money to create a ground organization to get voters to the polls. The three primaries Romney won were in states he had personal ties to, and only one of those was seriously contested -- Michigan. This doesn’t appear to be a great return on a $100 million investment.

While you can make arguments against Huckabee’s electability, using 2008 primary results and pretending the vote occurred in a vacuum is practically pundit malpractice.