Over at The Corner, John Podhoretz and Kathryn Lopez are engaged in a bit of a debate over the relevance of early polls showing McCain and Giuliani far ahead of the Republican pack at this (very early) stage. JPod takes the position that these polls mean something:
In all seriousness, Kathryn, it would be a mistake to be so quick to dismiss these poll numbers. They have been fairly consistent for more than a year, and because the respondents are Republican primary voters, we can be reasonably sure they are more politically literate than polls of registered voters generally. Giuliani ties with McCain in these polls even though McCain appears constantly in the media and on television while Rudy has deliberately remained scarce. The classic rule of thumb in all primary contests is this: If there’s a frontrunner, the frontrunner wins. Nobody in modern political history has come out of nowhere to take a race away from a serious frontrunner in either party.
He then qualifies his statement (after noting that Carter, Dukakis, Clinton, and Kerry “came out of crowded field of nobodies”) by stating that Republicans tend to go with the frontrunner. Maybe, but for four of the last five elections, the frontrunner was a person named George Bush (with the obvious advantages of incumbency followed by spectacular name recognition for the son). While Bob Dole did run from the front in 1996, his most significant opposition came from, well, Pat Buchanan.
The difference between this primary season and the primary seasons in 1996 and 2000 is that none of the presumed frontrunners reach the social conservative base of the party (not that Bob Dole set our hearts a-flutter, but there wasn’t a realistic alternative). After all, McCain did Sister Souljah the “religious right” back in 2000 and Rudy’s liberalism will only become more well known over time. With the base still in play, early polls mean even less than usual. In addition, neither Dole nor Bush faced a challenger quite as formidable as Governor Romney. John McCain was certainly a daunting opponent in 2000, but any primary campaign that depends so heavily on voters who don’t belong to the candidate’s party is not likely to succeed. It’s unclear that McCain will be able to alter his approach enough to win over the voters that went the other way six years ago.
The 2008 election will be unlike any in recent memory. With no sitting president or vice president on the ticket for the first time in a very long time (certainly for the first time since the advent of the modern primary system), the past may not be quite as instructive as JPod believes.