WASHINGTON — The latest McClatchy-Marist poll is a tale of two very different political parties: Hillary Clinton has a huge lead among Democrats for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, while the Republicans face a melee with no clear front-runner.
One measure of Clinton’s strength: Not only do 63 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters in the July 15-18 poll support the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady, but finishing second is “unsure” at 18 percent. Vice President Joe Biden trails at 13 percent.
As for the Republicans, here’s a barometer of the fracas looming for them: “Unsure” tops the field as the choice of one-fourth of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. Among actual potential candidates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leads with 15 percent, followed closely by the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
In other words, while it’s early, there’s no true leader of this pack.
“Numerically, Christie is in front,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the poll.
But look closely at that roster of candidates, he said: Christie is the most prominent moderate. He benefits from a field stacked with conservatives who divide that big Republican constituency.
“Christie does much better if there’s a huge crowd,” Miringoff said.
In Iowa, traditionally the site of the nation’s first presidential caucuses, Republicans add another reason for his stature.
“He’s the most known at this point,” said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican, which follows state politics.
Paul is the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who also ran for president and had a sizable following for his libertarian views. But voters are still looking the younger Paul over. As for Rubio, many conservatives remain uneasy, citing his alliance with Senate Democrats last month to write legislation that would provide a 13-year path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants.
The Republican who’s stirred some buzz so far is Cruz, Robinson said. The freshman senator’s blunt conservatism, as well as his eagerness to engage voters, has proven popular.
“He tells it like it is,” Robinson said.
Few are ruling out Christie. He is regarded as able to tap an Iowa donor base and has become familiar in party circles.
Christie, though, is no favorite of many conservatives. He angered them just before last year’s election when he appeared with President Barack Obama, praising the federal response to Superstorm Sandy. In May, the two appeared together again in New Jersey, as Christie renewed his praise and tossed footballs with the president.
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While those appearances might help him win re-election in November, they could prove useful fodder for conservative rivals in 2016. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans said in the McClatchy-Marist poll that it was more important to have a party nominee for president who would stand up for conservative principles. About one-third said it was important to have a candidate who could win.
Being a candidate who could win was Romney’s pitch when he sought the White House in 2008 and 2012. But he had a hard time convincing conservatives that he was a true believer and lost the nomination five years ago. Even last year, when he won his party’s top prize, Romney struggled to generate enthusiasm among the party base.
Christie, the poll suggests, is the candidate with the best chance of beating Clinton — he trails her 47 percent to 41 percent. Clinton tops Bush 48 percent to 40 percent and has double-digit leads over Rubio, Paul, Ryan and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Although Clinton has neither ruled in nor out a second White House quest, she would appear to have a smooth path to the nomination. She has strong majority support from every Democratic subgroup — white, nonwhite, under 45, over 45, men, women, higher-income people, lower-income people and so on.
“She has two things going for her — a lot of folks who worked in her last campaign are still enamored of her. And a lot of people say, ‘We made history once, and this is another opportunity,’ ” said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in New Hampshire, which conducts presidential polls.
Clinton won the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary but lost the nomination to Barack Obama.
Biden, who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 1988 and 2008, lags far behind Clinton and fails to top 20 percent support in any category.
“The difference is in their career paths,” Miringoff said.
Clinton spent most of the last dozen years as a senator and secretary of state. Biden was a senator, and since 2009, vice president, making him largely invisible and beholden to White House policy.
And the Obama connection isn’t helping. The poll showed the president’s job approval plummeting to 41 percent this year, its lowest level in nearly two years. And the survey found Democratic voters virtually split over whether it was more important to have a nominee who will continue Obama’s policies or would move in a different direction.
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