For most of this year, national polls showing head-to-head matchups among potential Republican presidential candidates will be interesting but hardly predictive. Opinion in states with February 2016 contests won’t really gel until late autumn, when polls begin to show the true state of the race in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
So what’s worth paying attention to in early polls? First, look at how many Republicans are undecided. The Jan. 25 USA Today/Suffolk University poll found 45% of Republicans and Republican leaners were undecided when asked an open-ended question who they wanted nominated.
The number of undecided is smaller in polls that give voters a list of names, but the USA Today survey indicates many Republicans are waiting to see who demonstrates the chops to win the White House.
Second, watch how acceptable specific candidates are. A Jan. 12 CBS poll asked whether a prospective candidate should run or not or if respondents didn’t know enough to have an opinion. This poll’s results suggest that the GOP field consists of four groups.
The first group is comprised of well-known Republicans with positive ratings. The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, drew 59% saying he should run and 26% saying he should not, followed by Florida’s former Gov. Jeb Bush, with 50% saying he should run versus 27% saying he should not. Third was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with a 40%-29% split. Even then, 14% said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion about Mr. Romney, 22% said the same about Mr. Bush and 31% about Mr. Huckabee. Their challenge is to translate the relatively positive feelings about them into concrete support.
Members of the second group aren’t as well-known but have positive images. In the CBS survey 26% said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio should run, 19% said he shouldn’t and 54% said they don’t know. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s numbers were 22% yes, 12% no and 64% don’t know; Dr. Ben Carson’s numbers were 21%, 17% and 61%. All three must work to increase awareness of their backgrounds, records and views.
The third group consists of people whose images are underwater with Republicans. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was at 30% should run to 59% don’t, and 11% don’t know. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christiewas at 29% run, 44% don’t and 26% don’t know. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was at 27% to 34% with 38% don’t know. If this poll is accurate, these three must rehabilitate their images.
Finally there are Republicans whose poll numbers were upside down but about whom many or most voters don’t know enough to say. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (21% run, 32% don’t and 47% don’t know), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (21%, 25% and 53%), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (14%, 20% and 65%) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (19%, 29% and 51%). These candidates must raise enough money to stay alive until the early contests and then beat expectations, or they will fade.
The CBS survey suggests that candidates will gain little by focusing mostly on strident attacks on President Obama or Hillary Clinton. Some of their most vociferous Republican critics are among the less well-known hopefuls. To get primary voters to choose them, Republican hopefuls must transition from attacks on Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton and toward a compelling vision and agenda for where they want to take the country.
Much attention is being paid to money as candidates set up their PACs and assemble campaign teams. In coming weeks, the press will report which big bundlers have signed up, how many events are scheduled, and hint at how fundraising is going. Then, no later than July, candidates will be measured by their PACs’ Federal Election Commission reports. There can be many winners at that point—candidates with big totals and those who beat expectations.
Money matters, but so does message. The so-called Ideas Primary—who has the best vision for the nation’s future—has been under way for months. Some hopefuls have made modest gains. Mr. Walker’s energetic and meaty speech last weekend in Iowa captured the most national attention about the rally. Mr. Rubio scored in the reporting about his impressive performance in a Freedom Partners discussion in California. Messrs. Walker and Rubio understand substance is the best tool to advance their cause, which is why they “won” the coverage of their events.
More than 18 million Americans voted in 2012 Republican primaries and caucuses. With no contest looming on the Democratic side, 2016 will almost surely see an even bigger GOP turnout. It should. This will be a great race.
A version of this article appeared January 29, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline What To Watch In The GOP Jockeying For 2016 and online at WSJ.com.