It’s a political golden oldie. Should partisan voters go with ideological purity or the candidate with the best chance of winning? Unfortunately, that only works when you’ve correctly identified the most electable candidate, and it doesn’t look like GOP voters have done that yet.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry came into the GOP race as a savior for conservatives. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) didn’t look particularly viable, and other candidates had flamed out. Perry brought Texas swagger and a right wing record to the race, and thus the Tea Party wing of the GOP flocked to him. But while that might be the way to win a Republican primary, the question for those Republicans who want to be strategic with their vote is whether Perry could pivot to a general election audience. And some recent polling shows that former Mass Gov. Mitt Romney is much more equipped for that transition, despite what Republican voters may think at the moment.
In late August, a poll from ABC News and the Washington Post showed that a solid plurality of Republicans, 30 percent in a crowded field, thought Perry presents their best chance to beat President Obama, with Romney behind at 20 percent. A few weeks into September, CNN released a poll that showed Perry improving that postion, with 41 percent saying he provided the best shot, against 28 percent for Romney. On Tuesday Gallup confirmed that sentiment, showing that even after Perry called Social Security a “ponzi sceme,” GOP voters still consider him the strongest general election candidate.
But that poll was in two parts: Gallup looked at both the GOP primary and who of the two men does better against President Obama. They found a disconnect between who Republicans perceived to be the best candidate (Perry), and who actually polled as the best candidate (Romney), even though Republicans said above all they want someone who can beat the President. From Gallup’s report:
Perry seems to have momentum, but that could be slowed in the coming weeks if Republicans start to perceive that Romney is more electable in the general election. The new poll finds the slight majority of Republicans, 53%, prefer to see their party nominate the person who has the best chance of beating Obama, even if that person does not agree with them on almost all of the issues they care about. Forty-three percent would prefer a candidate who does agree with them on almost all of the issues, even if that person does not have the best chance of winning in November 2012.
Romney currently edges out President Barack Obama by 49% to 47% in national registered-voter preferences for the November election, while Perry trails Obama by 45% to 50%. However, neither Romney nor Obama is ahead by a statistically significant margin.
Perry voters are slightly more likely than Romney voters to favor a candidate with the best chance of winning (59% vs. 52%). Thus, if Romney’s edge in general election trial heats persists, some Perry voters might be swayed to back Romney instead.
A look at the matchup polls provide one message: as of right now, Romney performs better against Obama, both nationally and in swing states. A Marist/McClatchy national poll showed Perry down nine to Obama and outside the margin of error, while Romney is in a statistical dead heat only down two. Rasmussen national matchups showed Romney only down three and Perry down by ten. Public Policy Polling (D) found the same: Romney in a dead heat, Perry further down.
In swing states, the results are not better for Perry. A Quinnipiac poll of Florida out Thursday showed Romney beating Obama by seven points (outside the margin), while Obama bests Perry by a statistically insignificant two percent. Romney also does marginally better in Wisconsin and Virginia.
PPP Pollster Tom Jensen said that there’s a real problem for Perry. Conservative voters who support Perry are willing to vote for Romney in a general election. But Romney’s more moderate voters aren’t as likely to end up supporting Perry if he’s the nominee, said Jensen. “On our last national poll Romney led Obama by 47 points with moderate Republicans (70-23) while Perry led Obama by 37 points with them (65-28). So there are definitely moderate Republicans who will vote for Obama before they’ll vote for Perry,” Jensen said in an email to TPM. “It’s not a huge number but it’s something that could make the difference in a close election, especially because moderate Republicans are more likely to be living in swing states than the Texases and South Carolinas and Nebraskas of the world.”
Jensen also said that Perry’s hard right stances could hurt him in a general, making the pivot from the primary that much harder. “For instance, 68% of moderate Republicans disagreed with Perry’s Ponzi Scheme statement about Social Security and only 26% agreed with him on it,” Jensen wrote. “So yes, Perry is too extreme for some GOP voters — maybe not any more than 10% of them but Republican voters are going to have to be very unified to win if Obama’s turnout machine is able to activate to the same extent it did in 2008.”
Republicans may say they’re willing to compromise for a win in 2012, but at the moment, they don’t seem to realize which candidate is the compromise.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.