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Who Can Unite the Republicans in 2012?

9:30 AM, Feb 28, 2011 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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Looking toward the crucial 2012 presidential race, three things are becoming increasingly clear:

Who Can Unite the Republicans in 2012?

1. A Republican candidate who can unite the Tea Party and the Republican establishment can beat President Obama. Recent polling by CNN and Rasmussen shows that the vast majority of voters who have a strong feeling about President Obama’s performance disapprove of it; that there’s not a single major issue on which the majority of Americans think he’s strong; and that the overwhelming majority of Americans say he’s not a good leader, with 40 percent saying he’s downright a “poor” leader. Moreover, Obama’s signature legislation, whose fate will likely coincide with his own, is unpopular, even in polling that grossly oversamples Democrats, and most Americans want it repealed.  

Despite Obama's clear vulnerability, however, a Republican candidate who’s unable to unite the Tea Party and establishment wings is unlikely to generate enough enthusiasm and across-the-board support to win the general election. Moreover, a candidate without sufficient Tea Party support isn’t likely to win the Republican nomination. Tea Party support will be essential to Republican success at both levels of the electoral process. 

2. There is very little overlap between the potential candidates that the Tea Party favors and the potential candidates that the establishment favors.  An ongoing Tea Party Straw Poll, conducted by the same folks who did the Tea Party’s “Contract from America,” demonstrates this quite strikingly. Mitch Daniels, a favorite inside the Beltway and among many establishment Republicans, ranks only 12th in popularity with the Tea Party. Mitt Romney, perhaps the leading establishment candidate, ranks a sobering 22nd. 

Mike Huckabee, not really an establishment candidate but nevertheless a big name, ranks only 14th. Huckabee, however, has much stronger support than Daniels (who has repeatedly called for a social “truce”) or Romney (who has something of a reputation as a waffler) among social conservatives, who overlap greatly with the Tea Party but are not synonymous with it. Among the best-known potential candidates, only Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich crack the Tea Party’s top-10. 

To be sure, the Tea Party Straw Poll is not “scientific” in the sense of trying to replicate the views of the entire population or the entire Tea Party. It’s better thought of as a vastly improved CPAC poll. Still, this is the best gauge of Tea Party sentiment about prospective candidates of which I am aware. 

Moreover, the straw poll (which operates like a seemlier version of the poll that’s depicted in the opening scenes of the Oscar-nominated The Social Network) offers some unique advantages over other polls: It registers unfavorable as well as favorable opinions; it displays the pictures of potential candidates — much as the candidates would themselves be visible on a debate stage — rather than merely listing (or asking people to conjure up) names and thereby favoring folks with strong name-recognition; it registers some degree of voter intensity by letting people vote multiple times, while protecting against “ballot stuffing” by only having a voter’s favorite candidate emerge periodically in its randomly generated sequences of pairings; and it has tallied a lot more responses than a typical poll: more than 1.6 million so far.

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