This weekend, Bloomberg Politics released a new poll of the New Hampshire GOP primary race that appears to be good news for Jeb Bush, who they conclude is at the front of the theoretical pack.
But take a closer look at the numbers and a positive story for Bush starts to look rather different: the supposed frontrunner is struggling alongside everyone else to break out. None of the candidates have amassed anywhere near 20 percent of the vote — which suggests that the contest for this key early state is wide open.
Indeed, this poll shows Bush with the support of a mere 16 percent of respondents — which means that despite the advantages in name recognition he holds from being related to two former presidents, he's barely ahead of Rand Paul and Scott Walker.
Early presidential primary polls very frequently bear little resemblance to the end results. Many voters aren't paying attention so early, and many likely candidates may not yet be well-known.
Walker, in particular, was unfamiliar to 46 percent of the poll's respondents — showing he could have room to win more support after he actually campaigns in the state. (Other recent polls show Walker with a slight lead already.)
So it's pretty pointless to parse small single-digit differences between these candidates at this point. The takeaway from this poll shouldn't be that Bush is leading — it should be that New Hampshire is anyone's game.
New Hampshire could elevate a mainstream contender
Everyone knows New Hampshire is crucial to the presidential primary process. But it's been particularly crucial to the GOP in the past two cycles, in which the New Hampshire winner beat out a socially conservative Iowa caucus winner to get the nomination.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee won a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses — and John McCain's win in New Hampshire elevated him as the mainstream alternative, after months in which political observers had written off his campaign. Then, in 2012, Rick Santorum very narrowly won Iowa, but Mitt Romney's solid win in New Hampshire made it clear that he was still the candidate to beat.
That scenario won't necessarily repeat itself — in 2000, George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses, and overcame McCain's New Hampshire win to be the nominee. Indeed, Jeb Bush also hopes to compete in Iowa, and has hired a top former Romney staffer to help him do so.
But recently, New Hampshire, with its recent history of supporting more moderate candidates, has provided a stronger indication about where the more mainstream wing of the party — both activists and voters — will end up.
"What is the non-Tea Party segment of the Republican Party going to do? Who is their horse?" David Karol, a political scientist who studies presidential primaries, asked me in a December interview. "If you think about who's going to win the New Hampshire primary, that's one way of thinking about who that person will be."
And if Bush can't win Iowa or New Hampshire, winning the nomination will be an immense challenge. No major party nominee has failed to win both early states since Bill Clinton in 1992 — and the Iowa caucuses didn't really count that year, since Tom Harkin, a senator representing the state and a favorite son, was running.
When a candidate does get a lead, it might not last
Even if a candidate does emerge with a poll lead in New Hampshire soon, though, it may not mean much. Primary races can be volatile, and the polls can change dramatically as the election approaches.
It's worth remembering that in 2007, John McCain didn't lead a single New Hampshire poll between early June and late December, according to RealClearPolitics. Yet he ended up defeating Mitt Romney, 37 percent of the vote to 32.
So, overall, the question of which GOP candidate will emerge in New Hampshire is an extremely important one to be asking. But according to recent polling and recent history, we're very far away from getting an answer to it.