A Romney-Huckabee-Pawlenty Race?

The 2012 election is a long way off, and much will happen before the GOP selects its presidential candidate. Still, if these results from the NYTimes/CBS poll are reasonably accurate, the race has already taken a pretty definite shape. As everyone knows, quite a few Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring. But this graphic, which sums up the poll results, suggests the ultimate shape of the race. Click to enlarge:
To be clear, I think highly of everyone on this list, with the possible exception of Donald Trump, so the point here is not my evaluation, but how the public is sizing up the candidates so far.
There are only two candidates who are both widely known to the general public and also viewed favorably by non-Republicans: Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Romney has been through a high-profile campaign and has a modestly positive overall rating, which is all one can expect in this polarized era. Mike Huckabee rates even better among both Republicans and all voters. I am not surprised by this: Huckabee is the most talented politician now working in either party. (I would say he is the most talented politician since Bill Clinton; is it coincidence that both came from Arkansas?) But it is not clear that Huckabee is in the race.
I think Romney and Huckabee (assuming he is in) are co-favorites. Now look at the rest of the field. Several high-profile candidates have negative ratings with the general public that seem prohibitively high: Sarah Palin (an appalling 26/55), Newt Gingrich (23/37) and Donald Trump, assuming he is actually a candidate (25/46). Unless Republican voters are feeling suicidal next year, they can be ruled out.
That leaves the lower-profile candidates, all of whom are unknown to most Americans, and, in fact, most Republicans. (It is noteworthy that Time magazine just named Michele Bachmann one of the 100 most influential people in the world, when 75 percent of Republicans say they don’t know enough about her to have an opinion.) This raises an interesting question: the minority of Republicans and other voters who have opinions about these candidates is obviously large enough to be a statistically significant sample, but is it representative? The people who know who Mitch Daniels is, for example, are not randomly selected: they are considerably more knowledgeable and more engaged than the average voter. So the question is, do they accurately reflect the impressions of the candidates that the broader mass of voters will eventually form, or not?
I’m not sure of the answer, but my guess is that they do, if imperfectly. On that assumption, these data are significant, even as to the candidates with whom most voters are unfamiliar. So let’s consider them.
It is striking that of the remaining candidates, there is only one who is popular among both Republicans and to the general public: Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty has a terrific 20/3 rating among Republicans, by far the best ratio of any candidate. This bears out the conventional wisdom that Pawlenty’s strength lies in the fact that he is acceptable to just about everyone. Meanwhile, his favorability among the general public is 12/8, a 60/40 ratio that is about as good as any politician can expect, and much better than Barack Obama’s.
The other lesser-known candidates don’t fare as well. Michele Bachmann is beloved by Republicans at 21/5, but not by the general public (12/13). No surprise there–she is one of the most courageous javelin-catchers in politics–but that doesn’t make her the ideal candidate. It is interesting that not only Bachmann, but also Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour and even Mitch Daniels have slightly higher negative than positive ratings among Americans generally. (The margins are probably not statistically significant.) That may just reflect the fact that many Democrats are mean-spirited and will say they disapprove of anyone they can identify as a Republican. Still, if so, that makes Pawlenty’s 60/40 split all the more impressive.
No one can foresee the game-changing events that are almost certain to take place over the next year. But it does seem likely that in the end, the Republican nomination fight will come down to Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty. And, if Huckabee decides to sit it out, we could have a two-man race.
UPDATE: This post is generating furious activity on my Facebook page, most of it negative. One wonders: why don’t those folks come here to comment, rather than staying on Facebook? I don’t know. But a FB friend named Ryan Kelly responds to the negativity in a way that I find sympathetic:

Nobody fits your principles exactly because no two people are exactly alike. Find someone who fits your principles most closely, and get in there and pull the damn lever for them! I don’t give a rat’s patoot if someone supports the same candidate(s) I do, but really, in light of the ass-whopping the dems received in Nov. 2010, all of the “woe is me! We’ve got such a poor field!” crap is getting a little tiresome. We’ve got conservatives. We’ve got socialists. We’ve got mercantilists. We’ve got weasels. We’ve got warriors. And that’s just on the Republican side of the equation. Grow a pair, pick someone, and be prepared to defend your choice! That, ladies and gentlemen and assorted micro-organisms, is really what America is about!