Campaigns and elections

Vanderbilt Poll: Gingrich and Cain, Romney and Perry

Nov 17 '11

Herman Cain is down, Newt Gingrich is up. Is this just another crazy spin of the Republican primary wheel of fortune?

With Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and now Cain having surged and then collapsed in the polls, press accounts have suggested that Gingrich is simply next in line to be the not-Mitt-Romney in the Republican race. However, a closer look at each candidate’s supporting coalition suggests that there is a political logic to Gingrich’s revival that the press has overlooked.

In a race where the field of major not-Romney candidates is often portrayed as an undifferentiated right-wing grab bag, a recent survey of potential Republican primary voters in Tennessee suggests that rank-and-file Republicans see the landscape quite differently. Gingrich supporters cluster together with Cain’s on the party’s right flank, while Perry, Paul, and Bachmann supporters are much less consistently conservative—indeed, not very different from Romney supporters. Thus, Gingrich’s dramatic rise in the national polls may reflect a strong pre-existing affinity with Cain supporters, not just a few months spent successfully avoiding negative headlines.

The Vanderbilt Poll surveyed 760 potential Republican primary voters in Tennessee between
October 28 and November 5. Cain was the first choice of 22%, with surprisingly steady support over the course of a week in which his campaign was plagued by escalating charges of sexual harassment. Romney trailed substantially with 12%, followed by Perry (9%), Gingrich (7%), Paul (6%), and Bachmann (5%). Thirty percent said they were undecided or “would rather have another choice.”

Of course, prospective voters’ preferences at this early stage are likely to be quite fluid. Past campaigns and recent national polls both provide strong grounds to suspect that the candidates’ fortunes will fluctuate dramatically between now and the end of the primary season. Nevertheless, patterns of support at this early stage may shed useful light on what could happen as the race evolves.

In the Vanderbilt Poll, conservatives comprised a majority of every major candidate’s supporting coalition. However, only Cain and Gingrich drew more than 80% of their support from avowed conservatives. Their supporters’ views on a variety of specific issues were similarly distinctive:

  • More than 90% opposed stimulus spending.
  • 80% or more opposed President Obama’s health care reforms.
  • More than 60% wanted less government regulation of business.
  • More than 60% supported a new Tennessee law limiting the clout of teachers’ unions.
  • More than 60% opposed increasing taxes on the rich.

The differences between Cain and Gingrich supporters on these issues were all modest, never exceeding 8 percentage points.

It is hardly surprising that Cain’s supporting coalition looks so solidly conservative. But it is a big surprise in the case of Gingrich. Remember, this is the guy who was being excoriated just six months ago for denouncing the Republican budget as “right-wing social engineering.”

While Cain and Gingrich supporters were strongly conservative across the board, backers of the other major contenders were less predictably conservative and sometimes downright moderate. For example, only minorities of Perry, Paul, Bachmann, and Romney supporters favored deregulation of business, opposed increasing taxes on the rich, or favored restricting teachers’ unions.

The complexion of Perry’s supporting coalition is especially striking, given his reputation as a staunch conservative. Fewer than half of Perry’s supporters favored reducing regulations on business, fewer than 40% supported reining in teachers’ unions, and fewer than 40% opposed raising taxes on the rich. In all of these respects, Perry’s supporters were more similar to Romney’s than to Cain’s or Gingrich’s. On one hand, that may suggest that Perry is
well-positioned to appeal to the broad center of the spectrum of Republican primary voters, at least in Tennessee. On the other hand, it may suggest that, even if Gingrich and Cain both self-destruct, Perry will have difficulty establishing himself as the conservative alternative to Romney.

The largest and most moderate bloc of potential primary voters in the Vanderbilt Poll were the 30% who said they were undecided or “would rather have another choice.” Slightly fewer than half of this undecided group described themselves as conservatives. Slightly fewer than half expressed unfavorable views of Obamacare. Less than one-third opposed higher taxes on the rich. Only 18% described themselves as “strong” Republicans, while only 22% said they supported the ideas of the Tea Party movement.

One bad omen for Romney is that this large, fairly moderate portion of the prospective primary electorate has, at least so far, failed to coalesce behind his candidacy. However, the bigger and happier news for Romney is that he seems much better positioned than Cain or Gingrich to appeal not only to this undecided bloc, but also to the many Republicans (20% in Tennessee) currently supporting Perry, Paul, or Bachmann.