Almost four years ago, long before the 2012 presidential campaign heated up, CNN took a poll to learn who Republicans might choose as their party's next nominee. There were two clear front-runners: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, limped in third.
By the time the campaign arrived, of course, Palin and Huckabee were pursuing careers as television pundits and after-dinner speakers, not presidential candidates. It's in that spirit that we should contemplate last week's burst of polling on the 2016 presidential campaign. Three years before the New Hampshire primary, these surveys aren't predictions; they're exercises in fantasy baseball.
With the consumer safety warning out of the way, here's what you wanted to know: The front-runner at this point for the 2016 Republican nomination is Marco Rubio.
In two polls of Republican voters released last week, the freshman senator from Florida turned up in first place, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fairly close behind.
Rubio won his first place status with the support of about a fifth of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. Pundits will call him the front-runner because they like to pin that label on somebody, but it's a tenuous perch. Just ask Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.
So why pay attention to polls that amount to little more than beauty contests?
Because even though they can't predict the winner three years from now, these surveys tell us something about the mood of Republican voters today.
A closer look at the results tells us that it's a wide-open race. Republican voters are looking for a new face, not a familiar figure. But they're also looking, it seems, for a reliably conservative face; no moderates need apply.
Here are the numbers from last week's Quinnipiac University poll: Rubio was first with 19%, followed by Ryan (17%), Paul (15%), Christie (14%) and Bush (10%). In a survey from Public Policy Polling, a respected Democratic firm, the results were similar: Rubio (21%), Paul (17%), Christie (15%), Ryan (12%) and Bush (12%).
So Rubio's in first place, but he doesn't have anything like the commanding lead that Hillary Rodham Clinton has in similar polls of Democratic voters. At 64% in the Public Policy Polling survey, Clinton really does merit the title of front-runner; no non-incumbent in memory has ever held so wide a lead. Of course, she hasn't said for sure that she wants the job; nor have any of these Republicans we're handicapping with such zest.
GOP voters, meanwhile, are still shopping around. Two months ago, for example, Paul drew only 10% in a PPP poll; his filibuster on domestic drones last month appears to have made him what one GOP campaign manager wryly called "the shiny new object" in the race. But there's still plenty of time for others, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, to move up.
In earlier elections, Republican voters often turned to the most experienced candidate in their camp, a phenomenon known as "next in line." Not this time: Of the five names on the list, none has run for president before, and only one, Bush, was a nationally-known figure five years ago. The average age of the top four — Rubio, Paul, Ryan and Christie — is 46. And Ryan doesn't seem to get many extra points for serving as his party's vice presidential nominee in 2012.
"It looks as if Republicans are looking for a generational change," noted Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. If the Democrats nominate Clinton (who will turn 69 in 2016) or Vice President Joe Biden (who will turn 74), the GOP will have youth on its side — at least on the ticket.
But the apparent front-runners are all solidly conservative. Taken together, Rubio, Ryan and Paul win support from about half of the Republican electorate; Christie and Bush, the relative moderates, only about one-quarter.
"There's no such thing as a moderate base in the Republican primary," notes John Brabender, who managed Rick Santorum's second-place finish in the 2012 GOP primary campaign. "And the voters who show up for the primary are often more conservative than the ones these polls are sampling."
That doesn't just mean Christie or Bush would have a hard time winning. It also means that GOP voters aren't pressing their party to move toward the center on issues such as taxes, gun control or gay marriage.
After Romney's 2012 defeat, polls found that most Republican voters took the loss as proof that their party should move further to the right. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 60% of Republicans said they wanted the GOP to become more conservative, not less; only 31% said they wanted "more moderation." (Strikingly, Democrats felt the opposite way about their party: 55% said they thought Democratic leaders should move toward the center, 35% in a more liberal direction.)
Does a party more conservative than Mitt Romney's stand a chance of winning a presidential election? It won't be easy — but it's not impossible. The GOP won in 1980 when it nominated Ronald Reagan, a conservative who was said to be outside the mainstream of opinion at the time.
And in 2016, Republicans will have another factor in their favor: a Democrat will have held the White House for eight years in a row. Only once in the last 70 years has a party succeeded in holding the presidency for three terms in a row; by 2016, voters are likely to feel it's time for a change.
That's not what the polls say, though. In the PPP survey, Clinton beats Rubio in a presidential matchup, 49% to 42%. She beats every other potential Republican candidate, too.
If that turns out to be the story of the 2016 presidential election, just remember: You read it here first. And if it's wrong — well, you know how unreliable those crazy polls can be.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus