Mike Huckabee is polling better than Rick Santorum. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg
Mike Huckabee is polling better than Rick Santorum. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The Fix’s Aaron Blake is correct that the 2016 Republican nomination battle is the party's “most wide-open primary in recent history.” He bases that conclusion on the polling, but it’s probably true of the invisible primary, too.

There are two things worth noting about that wide-open fight, however. The first is that since the process was reformed after the 1968 cycle, there only have been a handful of nomination contests without an incumbent president in the race (1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012). And there are even fewer without a sitting vice-president seeking the job (1980, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012), and even still fewer without at least a strong runner-up from the previous cycle who was widely endorsed by party actors (2000, 2008, and 2012).

So Blake only is pointing out that this contest is similar to three previous cycles, and that a clear leader hasn’t emerged. Moreover, the clear leaders in 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney and John McCain, both lost their polling leads on their way to winning the nomination. It was only clear in retrospect that a real structure had appeared in the polling at this stage of the contest.

Nonetheless, Blake is absolutely correct that the absence of structure in the Republican nomination polling so far is interesting. It’s just worth putting historical claims in context.

I’d add that the polling isn’t devoid of information. The context here is that early polling is largely, though not entirely, about name recognition. And that means that anyone who should have pretty solid name recognition and isn’t able to break out of the pack is a disappointment. Moreover, what matters about the polling now is how party actors (and the candidates themselves) perceive it, rather than how predictive it might be about Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest of the nominating states.

Given that, Jeb Bush’s failure to reach even 20 percent in any poll is an indication that there isn't a lot of enthusiasm for another Bush among the Republican rank-and-file. He could win anyway, if party actors want a safe pick and see him as one. But nothing in the numbers suggests he has a lock on the party, or that turning to him would be an obvious path of least resistance for those who want a quick resolution. The same probably is true of other relatively well known, broad-based candidates, such as Paul Ryan and even Rick Perry.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s interesting that Mike Huckabee polls relatively well, while Rick Santorum maxes out at 5 percent. Again, what matters is how such polling affects those now pondering where to invest their resources.

Oh, and the numbers don't support the notion that Rand Paul is a more serious contender than his father was in any of his campaigns.

When it comes to candidates who haven’t run a national campaign and don’t have fathers or brothers who did so, the numbers say even less: No one knows who those candidates are.

This contest could shake out in any number of ways. We could have a bunch of meaningless polling surges, as in 2012; we could see a strong consensus candidate emerge; we could wind up with several contenders dropping out over the next 15 months, with only one or two serious candidates by the time of the Iowa caucuses, or we could even get a very late-developing contest, with several plausible nominees in play.

One of the consequences of having so few similar cycles to look at is that it’s hard to predict how this one will play out. That means good times for the political junkies (and for political scientists interested in collecting data), but a challenge for anyone trying to make predictions.
To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.