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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

The frontrunner-less Republican presidential field

By Chris Cillizza

For months now, it's been clear that the 2012 Republican presidential field lacks a strong frontrunner.

A case can be made for how either former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) or Mike Huckabee (Ark.) -- or even former Gov. Sarah Palin (Alaska) -- should be anointed as the true frontrunner, depending on the weight you give to polls, access to campaign cash and staff. (Romney is probably the closest thing to a frontrunner in that group.)

But, poll after poll -- both nationally and in early voting states like Iowa -- suggests that while Romney, Huckabee and Palin garner the most support of potential Republican voters, none of them can rightly be described as a frontrunner.

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.)

Of the eight frontrunners in Gallup polling who went on to win the nomination, none took less than 31 percent in Gallup's hypothetical primary ballots. (That was Reagan, again, in 1980.) The average for the eight frontrunners was just over 40 percent of the vote -- well more than double the amount of support that Huckabee, Romney or Palin each received in the latest Gallup numbers on the race.

It's worth noting a few caveats in regards the numbers.

First, national polling at this point in a presidential race is almost entirely a function of name identification. It's why Giuliani was over 40 percent in Gallup data in the spring of 2007 but never came anywhere near winning the nomination -- or even carrying a single state -- in 2008.

While Republican voters knew and liked Giuliani from his stewardship of New York City during and after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his moderate -- at best -- issue positions on things like abortion and gay marriage ensured that he was not ultimately competitive for the nomination.

Second, national polling is a lagging indicator of a candidate's chances of winning their party's presidential nomination.

Remember that even in the fall of 2007, then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was being forced to answer questions about why he still trailed then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton so badly in national polls.

Obama, rightly, noted that the nominating contest is not a national election but a series of state votes -- starting with the Iowa caucuses where he was polling far stronger than his national showing. Obama's Iowa victory turned national polling on its head as momentum in Iowa drove a national surge for him.

That said, the record of frontrunners winning the Republican nod is hard to ignore and makes the race for the 2012 nomination all the more unique.

"History provides no guidelines for how today's highly fragmented Republican race might play out, or when a strong front-runner is likely to emerge, or who it will be," writes Gallup's Lydia Saad -- rightly capturing the level of unpredictability in the race.

What the data does tell us is that there is still plenty of room for late-arrivers or dark horses -- pick your metaphor -- to emerge.

The lack of anything close to what would historically be considered a frontrunner in the GOP field is what left so many political observers baffled by Sen. John Thune's (S.D.) decision to pass on the race and why it's nearly impossible to totally rule out the likes of either Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.) or Rick Perry (Texas). While both men have said they are not interested in running, it may be hard for them to resist a field as wide-open as this one.

With such a large number of undecided voters, the 2012 nominating fight is looking more and more likely to be a momentum contest. Most Republican voters are looking for someone to like but haven't found anyone yet.

That's a similar dynamic to what happened in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean went from nowhere to the race's frontrunner thanks to the relative lack of energy for anyone in the rest of the field. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who picked up the pieces of Dean's eventual implosion, used that same momentum premise to effectively end the race after back to back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Could 2012 be the Republican version of what happened to Democrats in 2004?

By Chris Cillizza  | March 7, 2011; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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