My main thought on the Republican Presidential field as 2011 begins is that the party needs someone outside the current top 4 of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich to come out of the pack and win the nomination. Despite the fact that Barack Obama continues to be relatively unpopular he leads all of these folks in our national polling and he leads them in the individual swing states we've polled- places like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia- as well. If he's beating them right now, two months removed from his party getting annihilated at the polls in the midterm election, then he's really going to be knocking them out of the park if his numbers ever see any real improvement- and if I had to put money on it I'd say they will eventually.
Romney, Huckabee, Palin, and Gingrich's problem isn't that they're unknown. They've all been in the national spotlight before and they all had at least 75% name recognition on our most recent national poll. Their problem is that folks do know them- and they don't like them. Once that bad impression's been made it's hard to make a different one.
So the GOP's going to be best served by a fresh face. Still the odds are better than not for now that one of these folks will be the Republican nominee- and if it is one of them there's no doubt in my mind that the best one for the GOP's prospects next year would be Mike Huckabee.
Why Huckabee's better than Gingrich and Palin. You could answer this question in one simple word: electability. In nine swing states where we've polled since November (Virginia, Montana, North Carolina, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida) Huckabee has trailed Obama by an average of 2 points. In those same places Gingrich has trailed by an average of 7 points and Palin by an average of 11 points. Huckabee is massively more viable in a general election than these two. That's at least partially because he has the most appeal to Democrats of the Republican front runners.
Why Huckabee's better than Romney. Romney has actually done a little better than Huckabee in these early swing state polls, trailing Obama by an average of just 1 point. In addition Romney has shown the most appeal to independents so far of the top Republicans. There's a large difference in how much enthusiasm there is for Huckabee and Romney with the GOP base though. 73% of conservative Republicans have a favorable opinion of Huckabee, putting him just behind Palin's 77%, and well ahead of Romney's 58%. For all the hand wringing of the last two years you better believe Democrats are going to be excited about going out to reelect Barack Obama in 2012. Republicans need to be able to match that and they're going to need a candidate they're enthusiastic about to make that happen- for now Huckabee fits the bill on that front and Romney doesn't.
Huckabee's the only one of the top Republicans who has the combination of electability and base appeal it's going to take to beat Barack Obama. Romney has the electability but not the base appeal, Palin has the base appeal but not the electability, and Gingrich sort of falls in the middle on both counts. A lot will change over the course of 2011 but at least based on the information we have so far Huckabee looks like the GOP's best bet.