The USA Today/Gallup poll Greg linked to this morning showing Mitt Romney with a lead in the 2012 GOP primary supports the argument I made last week — that despite all of the culture war symbolism deheployed by 2012 GOP hopefuls, the base is more pragmatic than it might appear to the left:
But there is no question which issue swamps all others in importance: the economy and jobs. Those surveyed were inclined to prefer the candidate who has the best chance of defeating President Obama rather than one who agrees with them on every issue.
The poll shows Romney with 24 percent, followed by Sarah Palin (16 percent) and Herman Cain (8 percent) as Romney’s closest rivals. This would seem to suggest that Romney’s refusal to retract his support for his universal health insurance plan in Massachusetts — which rival Tim Pawlenty has now dubbed “Obamneycare” — may not be all that catastrophic, after all. Romney’s record of reversals relative to his rivals is exaggerated by the media’s tendency to latch on to narratives about candidates’ personalities. In reality, most of the 2012 GOP hopefuls have had to abandon previously sensible positions taken when the GOP wasn’t so focused on denying the existence of climate change or dead-set against universal health insurance coverage.
Straying from the party line of the moment isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, though, which is why once-maverick Senator John McCain emerged as the GOP standard-bearer in 2008 despite his tumultuous relationship with the party base and his record of defying the party leadership on certain matters. It’s also something to keep in mind tonight as the Republican candidates come together for the first debate featuring Romney. As the front-runner, he’s bound to face attacks on his ideological heresies, particularly his support for the individual mandate on the state level. This new poll, however, suggests that Romney’s challenge isn’t to convince the GOP faithful that he’s the most orthodox conservative in the race. It’s to convince them that he has the best chance of winning.