Republican Voters Are Very Slowly and Gingerly Sizing Up Their Options

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Enjoy it while it lasts.Photo: John W. Adkisson/Getty Images

Over the past day or so, in looking at the state of the GOP presidential field, Ed Kilgore of The New Republic and Josh Green of The Atlantic have both noticed that the hunger for a more fiery, extreme candidate like Donald Trump could doom actually electable-seeming guys like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. "If Trump is pushed out of the limelight or off the campaign trail by the conservative establishment, or by his own erratic record on a host of issues," Kilgore writes, "the atavistic longings of the rank-and-file conservative base will simply affix themselves elsewhere as other candidates try to tap the rich vein of anger he’s helped galvanize." Pawlenty, Green writes, "must hope" that the conservative base "hasn't changed so much that what he represents — an electable conservative — has lost its appeal altogether."

From the looks of today's New York Times/CBS News poll, though, it hasn't. When asked to name someone they felt passionate about, roughly the same percentage of voters volunteered Romney or Mike Huckabee as Trump. And more Republican voters feel negatively about Trump than any other candidate. So why is the brash real-estate tycoon surging in so many polls?

Because Republican voters have barely even begun to pay attention to the campaign and scrutinize the field. A Pew poll released yesterday asked Republican voters to name the possible GOP candidate they have heard the most about recently. Trump took first place with 39 percent of the vote, but a close second was None/Don't Know, with 38 percent. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans couldn't even name a candidate they have heard about recently!

And as for the people they have heard about, many have declined to actually process the information they have gathered and form an opinion. Take this Times poll. While it's understandable that the vast majority of voters don't know much about guys like Jon Hunstman or Michele Bachmann or Tim Pawlenty, who have been bottled up in faraway lands like China or Minnesota for the past few years, many voters are withholding an opinion even for candidates who ran in 2008 and have been a near-constant presence since then. Thirty-five percent of GOP voters are undecided about whether they like or dislike Mike Huckabee? Forty-three percent don't know enough to form an opinion on Romney? That's just kind of bizarre.

The tentativeness with which GOP voters are tuning into the campaign and inspecting, or reinspecting, the pseudo-candidates is a bad omen for Trump, whose numbers will certainly fizzle once he's not the only contender in the news and voters actually learn more about him. And it's good news for guys like Pawlenty, who may as well not exist right now but has the credentials to be popular once the campaign season heats up, the debates begin, and he gets more exposure. It is way too early for him, or Romney, to freak out about a guy who will become increasingly unpalatable as time goes on.

Poll Finds No Favorites in G.O.P. Fight for President [NYT]
Trump Most Visible Among Possible GOP Contenders [Pew]