The best poll for grasping the ups and downs of the Republican presidential contest ran in the National Journal magazine in late October (http://tinyurl.com/7nnvpw3) and has been updated several times since (http://tinyurl.com/d92zrqh).
In prior columns I have argued that GOP voters in this cycle are breaking differently than in 2008, when there were distinctly social, economic and national security voters.
In 2008, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the social issue voters but was unacceptable to Republicans in the other two camps. No candidate clearly captured the economic voters. Arizona senator John McCain won the national security vote and was acceptable to both social issue and economic conservatives. So McCain won the nomination.
This year GOP primary voters are dividing on a line that looks more like the divide between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush Republicans in the 1980 primaries. The line of separation this year is no longer ideological. Republicans are broadly of a common mind on what the country will need after four years of catastrophically misguided Democratic rule, for the first two years both on Capitol Hill and in the White House. But they have different attitudes about tone, style and intensity.
To me it has seemed that those who look like the Bush voters of 1980 have gone to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Those who look like the Reagan voters of almost thirty-two years ago have been searching. At first a few parked with Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman. When Texas governor Rick Perry entered the race, they rushed to him. Then Perry fumbled in debate, all but announcing that he was unprepared to be president, and they rushed to business executive and radio talk host Herman Cain. When Cain’s made it clear that he, too lacked the background for the presidency, they looked around again.
By that time the buzz was building about former House speaker Newt Gingrich. In debates, he emerged again and again as the most knowledgeable, cool headed, and clear about policy of all the candidates on the stage. Soon the Reaganesque vote was moving his way.
All of this I inferred from everything I was seeing. But now the National Journal has attached numbers to the hunch. In a series of polls they have asked likely GOP primary voters their attitudes about the Tea Party. Nor surprisingly, half of GOP voters responded that they looked favorably on the Tea Party. Forty five percent were neutral, five percent hostile.
The NJ grouped neutrals and hostiles together and then tracked the candidate preferences of pro-Tea Party versus the neutral/hostile voters. As you can see from the first link above, the neutral/hostile group has gone to Romney. The pro-Tea Party voters have bounced around, usually giving overall GOP leader or number two status to their favorite of the moment. At the second link above you can see that their favorite now is Gingrich, and, of course, he is leading in the overall polls.
This is not to say that the game is up. To date Romney has failed to give a coherent rationale for his candidacy. His changing issue stances has left many Republicans worried that in office he won’t follow through on cutting spending, regulations and taxes. But, as columnist William McGurn notes in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, he could turn his standing as a dazzlingly successful businessman into a plus in this economy and his knowledge of finance into unchallengeable bona fides for putting the nation’s spending and balance sheet in order. He has not to date, but if he were to play to his strengths, he might reestablish himself as the frontrunner in short order. People are still listening.
Meanwhile, many continue to worry about Gingrich’s capacity for boneheaded moves. The significance of the debates is that they have given him a showcase to put what you might call the New Newt on display. He is more likeable than people remember. He has a manner on stage that fits well with the kind of personality we look for in presidents.
Here is a test. Think of all the general election match ups sine 1980: Reagan versus Carter, Reagan versus Mondale and so on through Obama versus McCain. Ask yourself, which candidate had the best temperament for the office? Not which did I agree with on issues? We are talking about temperament here. In almost all cases (Bush versus Clinton is the major exception), when I have asked this question of both Republicans and Democrats, the ultimate winner in each election has been the consensus pick.
It is fair to say that Romney long ago established that he passes the temperament test against Mr. Obama. In the debates of the past several months, Gingrich has established that, alone among the candidates who excite the Tea Party half of the party, he passes it, too.