Much has been made of a recent Gallup/USA Today poll that asked respondents to name “the main person who speaks for the Republican Party today.” The USA Today headline read “Poll: Most don’t know who speaks for GOP” and showed that Republican respondents mentioned Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich most often with 10% each, followed by Dick Cheney at 9% and John McCain at 6%. Many pundits have cited this poll as cause for great alarm among Republicans. The numbers, they say, are evidence that the Republicans are hopelessly (and unusually) rudderless. Worse, the few names that pop up are not actual potential future leaders or presidential candidates, but a talk show host and several confirmed or suspected has-beens.
But are these numbers really so alarming or unusual? The out-of-power party very often finds itself without a clear spokesman. Congressional leaders rarely have the stature among the rank-and-file to be consensus candidates as party leaders. Even former presidential candidates usually see their clout fade rapidly after an electoral defeat. In the case of Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President is seen as having no future in electoral politics. So its not surprising that no one person rose to a clear lead in this poll. Given the fact that many talk shows and magazine covers had mentioned Limbaugh as a party leader before this poll was conducted, Rush’s 10% isn’t surprising either.
Finally, the question design itself made a lack of clarity on a “spokesman” a foregone conclusion. More than half of respondents (52%) could not name any person when asked this question. There is nothing like an “open-ended” question without the benefit of a clear set of choices to contribute to an inconclusive quantitative answer.
Probably the best way to refute the notion that this poll is, in itself, a cause for Republican alarm is to examine a survey taken the last time a new President took office, also by Gallup for USA Today. That survey, conducted in August 2001, asked a similar question and produced a strikingly similar conclusion, complete with this USA Today headline: “For The Democrats, No Clear Leader”. The 2001 survey had 51% of respondents failing to come up with any name at all–almost identical to the 2009 poll. Among Democrats, the most mentioned person as party leader was Al Gore, and his percentage of the mentions was 10%.
As future star Democratic operative David Axelrod said in that 2001 article, “It’s the nature of being the party out of power.” In other words, we are very likely to see this headline repeated yet again when the next shift in power occurs.