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Iowa Poll on 2016 presidential race an occasion for fantasy politics [Commentary]

Three years before the next presidential election, Republican also-rans are making noises about trying again. The most conspicuous is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but quickly faded and pivoted to his own television show to lick his wounds and contemplate his future.

Mr. Huckabee wisely decided to take a sabbatical from office-seeking in 2012 as another previous GOP loser, Mitt Romney, dug himself deeper in political obscurity by losing again. But now Mr. Huckabee has seized on a totally meaningless early public-opinion poll in Iowa to see a flicker of hope for 2016.

In the Iowa Poll just out by the Des Moines Register, Republicans surveyed actually gave another Republican loser at the presidential level, 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the highest favorable rating of 10 party leaders on a list of prospective 2016 candidates.

Mr. Ryan scored a 73 percent favorable reaction among Republican respondents to only 10 percent unfavorable, adding fuel to a Ryan boomlet the wake of his role with Democrat Sen. Patty Murray in negotiating the recent budget deal from which hope of bipartisanship has just sprung. Mr. Huckabee ran a clear second behind Mr. Ryan in the poll, rating a 66 percent favorable response to 17 unfavorable. By such thin reeds are failed presidential dreams resurrected.

In a Washington Post interview, Mr. Huckabee mouthed the obvious opinion that for a Republican to win in 2016, he or she must demonstrate "an ability to communicate a message that speaks across a broader spectrum." He noted Mr. Romney's failure to connect with African Americans, Hispanics and "working-class people," and his appeal to "the board room" but not the "people who go in and clean up after the meeting." In other words, no GOP candidate should ignore "the 47 percent of Americans" Mr. Romney fatally said were out of his reach in 2012.

For those Mr. Ryan and Mr. Huckabee cheerleaders looking for future sustenance in the Iowa Poll, they could look at the numbers of all voters surveyed, not just Republicans. In the Republican field, Mr. Ryan, Mr. Huckabee and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were the only wannabes who got favorable ratings from voters regardless of party, with Mr. Christie garnering 44 percent favorable to 29 percent unfavorable, Mr. Ryan 40 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable, and Mr. Huckabee 39 percent favorable to 35 percent unfavorable.

When it comes to attempting to read an outcome three years down the road, however, such tea leaves are about as useful as reading an astrology chart. That doesn't stop political junkies, from would-be jockeys hoping to ride a long-short winner to columnists like me, looking for something to talk or write about in the slow season around Christmas.

This early Iowa Poll also revealed that the 2016 possible candidates who fared worst among Republican respondents were Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Among all 650 Iowans polled, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ran weakest, which may indicate the pulling power of the family name these days.

The next important date on the political calendar, the congressional balloting next November, is infinitely more significant in terms of shaping the nation's immediate future. It will determine whether divided government will continue through President Barack Obama's final two years or whether he will have a Democratic Congress to help him accomplish parts of his long-sought but frustrated agenda.

Unfortunately for the country, midterm elections never draw the same public interest, press attention or voter turnout that a campaign for president generates. Most House incumbents of both parties are easily re-elected in often gerrymandered districts, and it usually takes some politically cataclysmic event or mood to break the pattern.

At this point, Mr. Obama can hope that voters will rebel at continued Republican obstructionism in Congress and give him control of both houses, as he had for his first two years. Republicans, however, will look for sustained disappointment over Obamacare to put them in charge, enabling them to stifle the president even more effectively for the rest of his term.

Such is the political climate that exists, diverted only temporarily by public and press scrutiny of premature presidential polls cited by long-shot candidates, signifying nothing.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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