2012 Republican Nomination Fight One Of The Most Open-Ended Ever

The race for the 2012 Republican nomination is missing the one thing that GOP nomination battles have almost always had, a frontrunner.

Two new polls show that the race for the Republican nomination is still pretty much a popularity contest with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee at the top, but also show some interesting numbers further down the pack.

First, there’s the new CNN poll that has Huckabee (who many suspect won’t run at all) leading Mitt Romney by a small margin:

In a CNN poll released today, self-identified Republican adults named the usual suspects as their top choices to represent the party in next year’s presidential election. But behind Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin came business mogul and reality television host Donald Trump, placing fifth, just two points back of the former Alaska governor.

Mike Huckabee led all potential candidates at 19%, followed by Mitt Romney (18%), Newt Gingrich (15%), and Sarah Palin (12%). Trump broke into double-digits as well, coming in at 10%.

Huckabee and Romney have led almost every national poll of the GOP field, with Palin and Gingrich rounding out the top-tier. Rep. Ron Paul has been the only other candidate to consistently poll near those top four. In CNN’s latest poll, Paul placed behind Trump, at 8%.

In the CNN poll, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and Rick Santorum each garnered 3%, while Haley Barbour garnered 1%.

Trump getting double digits shouldn’t be all that surprising since, at this point, these polls are influenced by name recognition and celebrity. What is interesting, though, is that Trump’s presence in the field would seem to hurt Palin the most:

“Removing Trump’s name from the list and allocating his voters to their second choice gives Huckabee 21 percent and Romney 19 percent – essentially unchanged from January. In a Trump-less field, Gingrich gets 15 percent, up from 10 percent in January, and Paul goes from 7 percent to 11 percent. Palin is the big loser, dropping from 19 percent in a no-Trump round in January to just 13 percent now,” adds Holland.

The only explanation I can come up with for this one is that some portion of Palin’s support is from people who are jumping on her bandwagon because of the celebrity, and Trump is a far bigger celebrity than Sarah Palin, and he has the advantage of not having much of a political record so he can pretty much say whatever he wants and people will think he actually believes it. I can’t see that translating well at all when people actually start paying attention to this race, but I would expect Trump to continue getting media attention for some time, and he’ll milk it for all its worth.

In addition to CNN, we’ve got a new poll from Pew Research that shows Romney and Huckabee essentially tied, but also shows that, at least at the moment, there isn’t much of a difference in candidate preference between regular Republicans and self-identified Tea Party members:

Romney and Huckabee generally garner the most support across the ideological spectrum of Republicans and Republican leaners.

But Palin nearly matches Huckabee among those independents who say they lean Republican (18% for Huckabee, 16% for Palin), while 13% of GOP leaners say Paul is their top choice. Paul, best known for strong libertarian views, fares better among these GOP-leaning independents than he does among self-described Republicans (5%).

Among those who say they agree with Tea Party movement, 24% say Romney would be their first choice, 19% say Huckabee, 15% say Gingrich, 13% say Paul and 12% say Palin.

Here’s the complete breakdown:

Mitt Romney mended the 2008 campaign as essentially the standard bearer for movement conservatives despite his primary loss to John McCain but has since become somewhat anathema to many conservatives because of his continued defense of the Massachusetts health care reform plan, which bears a striking resemblance to many provisions of the Affordable Care Act, as the White House continues to remind us. The fact that he leads the GOP field even now among Tea Party-ers is really quite surprising. I can only stock up to a combination of name recognition and, perhaps, a realization among some Tea Partiers that ideological orthodoxy isn’t going to win nationwide elections. Even more interesting is the fact that Palin is barely in double digits with this group, a reflection, it would seem, of her declining favorability in general over the past several months.

Not nearly as surprising is the fact that Huckabee leads among most religious voters:

Three-in-ten among those who attend church weekly (30%) say their first choice is Huckabee, much greater support than for any other potential candidate. Huckabee also leads among white evangelical Republicans: 29% say their first choice is Huckabee, compared with 16% who favor Palin and 15% for Romney. Huckabee holds a comparable lead among white Catholic Republicans and leaners.

If Huckabee doesn’t run, these voters, which play a huge role in Iowa as well as many Southern primaries, will be up for grabs. Some would likely get behind Palin if she decides to run, but it might not be so easy for her to pick up where Huckabee left off. If neither Huckabee nor Palin run, then this group of voters will pretty much be completely up for grabs, with candidates like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and apparently Michelle Bachmann trying to appeal to them. One dark horse candidate who could do well among this voting bloc is Herman Cain. He won’t win, but with enough support from highly motivated evangelicals he could become the “surprise” candidate for 2012, and could end up on the short list for Vice-President.

The biggest take away from these polls, though, is that there still isn’t a frontrunner for the Republican nomination. This is unusual for the GOP, which has historically rallied behind an heir apparent early on in the race. This year, there’s no heir apparent, and its not even clear that some of the top tier candidates are going to run. If they don’t then this will be the most wide-open race Republicans have seen in a very long time.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. hey norm says:

    Big bummer. I have been hoping Palin would begin to fare better. I was so looking forward to living in Europe for her half-term.

  2. Kylopod says:

    >If they don’t then this will be the most wide-open race Republicans have seen in a very long time.

    I would say it already is the most wide-open GOP race in the entire era of primary-centered nomination contests, which began in 1972. Before this, the record was the 2008 race. From ’72 to ’04, the eventual GOP nominee had always been the clear front-runner at least a year before primary season. (The significant races in this period were 1980, 1996, and 2000, where no sitting president or vice president was one of the Republican candidates. It’s a small sample size, but still telling.) But in 2008, the long-time front-runner, Giuliani, turned out to barely register in the primaries, and in truth he wasn’t plausible to anyone who had been paying attention.

    If you held a gun to my head, I’d surmise that Romney will be the nominee next year. But I’m anything but certain about this, and it’s more unpredictable than any race I can remember. I’m not even writing Palin off, though my sense that she will win has greatly lessened in the past several months. I think her downfall began with the results of the 2010 midterms, particularly the Joe Miller fiasco and the Christine O’Donnell fiasco, which didn’t do much to ingratiate her to Republican insiders.

  3. Trumwill says:

    I’m not sure this election is any more “wide open” than the last one, as far as the GOP is concerned. McCain’s victory was somewhat predictable even if it wasn’t exactly showing up in the polls… but three years from now there’s a good chance they’ll be saying the same about Romney.

  4. ponce says:

    “I was so looking forward to living in Europe for her half-term.”


    But it’s starting to look like Palin is playing Qui-Gon Jinn to Michelle Bachmann’s Obi-wan.

  5. Tlaloc says:

    But it’s starting to look like Palin is playing Qui-Gon Jinn to Michelle Bachmann’s Obi-wan.

    Thanks, and here I thought the prequels could not have been worse…

  6. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares? Short of catching President Obama in bed with a live boy or a dead girl, there is now way that he can lose. Any Republican running now is demonstrating that they are a fool. Why run in an election that they have no chance of winning?

    The real question in 2010 is whether the Democrats can get control of the House back.

  7. Kylopod says:


    As a Democrat and Obama supporter, I think you are waaaay overconfident about the Democrats’ prospects in 2012.

    I’d give Obama the edge in the presidential race (with a large degree of uncertainty), but it’s highly unlikely Dems will retake the House.

  8. mantis says:

    Thanks, and here I thought the prequels could not have been worse…


  9. superdestroyer says:


    If the Republicans are foolish enough to nominate someone like Huckabee, then all of those seats won in 2010 in the Midwest, Pa, etc will be lost.

    No matter who the Republicans nominate, the candidate will have a negative effect on down ticket candidates.