The Missing Front Runner

Chris Cillizza observes that not only is it a bit unusual that we don’t have any formally announced GOP presidential candidates yet, we’re also lacking a front-runner:

And now, new data from Gallup suggests the decided lack of a leader of the pack is a historic anomaly of major proportions. In the ten contested Republican presidential primary races between 1952 and 2008 — nine open seat fights and the 1976 face-off between President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — Gallup polling has always shown a clear frontrunner by this time.

And, in eight of those ten contests, the polling frontrunner at that moment went on to be the party’s presidential nominee. (The exceptions: Barry Goldwater trailed Richard Nixon at this point in the 1964 election and John McCain trailed Rudy Giuliani at this point in the 2008 election.)

As Cillizza notes “national polling at this point in a presidential race is almost entirely a function of name identification” rather than anything deeper. But that’s interesting on its own terms. The normal pattern is for someone—the front-runner—to be a reasonably well-known national figure. Sometimes the front-runner ends up losing to someone who starts out much more obscure (Barack Obama, for example) but that’s the foundation for front-running. What seems to me to be happening with these numbers is that Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin are all about equally well-known, preventing anyone from consolidating a leadership position. But if Huckabee and Palin both decide not to run (which seems likely), then Romney starts to look like a classic “next in line” Republican front-runner. Then the only thing standing between him and the nomination will be his record as governor and his religion.