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What the New Iowa Poll Reveals About 2016 (Hint: Not Much)

Santorum narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in 2012. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Santorum narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in 2012. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A new Des Moines Register poll of Iowans’ attitudes toward potential 2016 presidential hopefuls has already received plenty of attention. That’s not surprising, I suppose, given the unquenchable thirst from some about anything to do with the next presidential race.

The survey’s results give us some information — most of it entirely predictable — but the data doesn’t tell us who will win the 2016 Iowa caucuses or the White House a little less than three years from now.

In June 2010, an Iowa poll of likely 2010 GOP primary voters found 62 percent having a favorable opinion of Mitt Romney, while Sarah Palin (58 percent) and Newt Gingrich (56 percent) posted the next highest favorable numbers.

Of course, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum nosed out Mitt Romney to win the caucuses in 2012. Gingrich finished a distant fourth, behind the two leaders and retiring Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Texas Gov. Rick Perry finished fifth.

The current poll found Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan (73 percent favorable/10 percent unfavorable) and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (66 percent favorable/17 percent unfavorable) particularly popular with Republican adults, which isn’t shocking. Ryan’s image is that of a conservative with brains, while Huckabee, who won the GOP’s caucuses in 2008, has had a television show for years.

Republicans still like Santorum (58 percent favorable/21 percent unfavorable), who represents the party’s commitment to social issues and overall conservatism.

Rick Perry’s good numbers (55 percent favorable/19 percent unfavorable) are inexplicable. He was nothing short of a disaster as a candidate, though he still received 10 percent of caucus attendees. I suppose Iowa Republicans like the idea of a conservative Texan, even if they have already forgotten how he performed as a candidate.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s numbers (51 percent favorable/30 percent unfavorable) are among the most interesting, and they ought to be a red flag for his supporters. He starts with high negatives among Republicans, even with all of the fawning coverage from the national media.

Sen. Ted Cruz’s more modest numbers (46 percent favorable/17 percent unfavorable) are also surprising given the favorable splash the Texan supposedly made during a post-shutdown trip to the state.

Most of these numbers are meaningless, of course. In both 2008 and 2012, GOP candidates who weren’t even on the radar early ended up making a late rush and winning the caucuses.

Huckabee was a non-factor throughout much of 2007, and it wasn’t until the last quarter of that year that he surged to become the alternative to Romney, especially for evangelicals. Santorum followed a similar track in 2012. He was regarded as largely irrelevant until the final few weeks before the caucuses, when conservatives rallied around him as the alternative to Romney.

If 2008 and 2012 are any guide, most Iowa Republicans are a long way from deciding who they will support in the 2016 causes, so the new survey is little more than a baseline. Baselines are fine, but they only tell you where you are, not where you are going.

The poll also shows that 89 percent of Iowa Democratic adults have a favorable view of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, while only 7 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s numbers are good (71 percent favorable/18 percent unfavorable), though not in Clinton’s league.

The suggestion from Des Moines Register political reporter Jennifer Jacobs that Clinton would face a “firestorm of opposition from Republicans” should not come as a surprise to anyone.  We didn’t need a poll to tell us that.

In a sense, the December 8-11 poll of 650 Iowa adults kicks off the 2016 presidential race. While there have been national polls about the potential contenders for months, Iowa is where the contest really begins, so a poll in the Hawkeye State seems like the opening bell of the fight.

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