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The GOP’s diluted purity test

at 01:32 PM ET, 06/13/2011

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll this weekend showed that three in four Republicans said they would prefer a GOP nominee who can beat President Obama to someone who agrees with them on all the issues.

Good for Mitt Romney, right?

On the surface, the answer is yes. Romney has a monopoly on electability right now, even as his past stances on social issues and his health care bill threaten to weigh him down in a primary. Indeed, the CNN poll show Republicans — by a convincing margin — think he’s the one to beat Obama.

But it might not be so simple.

“I think this question tells us Republicans really want to beat Obama, but is not quite as definitive that GOP voters don’t want ideological purity,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

Republican pollster Tyler Harber noted that the poll tested Republican adults — not likely primary voters. The broader sample means the poll isn’t necessarily representative of the GOP primary electorate, which Harber said showed a preference for the ideologically pure in the 2010 election.

The desire for conservative purity, many in the GOP acknowledge privately, led to the nomination of less-electable GOP Senate candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska.

“Republican primary voters are immovable on their issues,” Harber said. “Sure, they want to beat President Obama, but they are not willing to budge on their issues to do it.”

Others disagree, though, saying that when it comes to something as big as beating a president that you disdain, voters will become pragmatic.

“That pragmatism doesn’t necessarily extend to House and Senate contests,” GOP pollster Jon McHenry noted.

Added Republican pollster Glen Bolger: “I have noticed that winning matters much more than purity to whichever party is out of the White House.”

So, basically, there are two trains of thought.

One is that Republican primary voters are looking for someone who fits the ideological ideal, and that Romney’s health care bill, Tim Pawlenty’s past support for cap and trade and Jon Huntsman’s service in the Obama Administration will ultimately disqualify them outright in the minds of many GOP voters — or, at least, voters who see any of those things as a litmus test. That leaves a gaping hole for the Herman Cains and Michele Bachmanns of the world. (Though it should be noted that a candidate like Cain has his own “impurities” — specifically, that he supported the bank bailout in 2008.)

The other is that voters know people like Bachmann and Cain would have a tough time beating an incumbent president like Obama, and while these candidates might excite the 24 percent of voters who want ideological purity over electability, it’s going to be hard for them to grow past that. Basically, this train of thought suggests Republican voters were sending a message with Angle, O’Donnell and Miller, but that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate like that in a presidential election, because the stakes are too high.

In reality, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. While Republicans might be pragmatic, on the whole, their primary electorate will be much less so. And while people are looking for ideological purity, if they can be convinced that voting for a certain candidate is a waste, they will often choose to go with the candidate who has a chance to win — everyone wants to support a winner.

The problem for most of the front-runners in the Republican primary is that their conservative apostasies are in some pretty sensitive territory. Especially when it comes to Romney and Huntsman, there will be a lot of explaining to do.

Of course people are going to tell a pollster that they are pragmatic. When we get down to it, though, even some who said they just want a winner are going to be dissuaded by a certain issue — be it abortion, health care reform, cap and trade or serving in the Obama administration.

The question is how many people will engage in litmus tests and how strict they are.

This, more than anything else, is the continuing measure of the tea party effect. And by the end of the GOP presidential primary, we should have an idea about whether or not it’s here to stay. (For more reasons why we’re skeptical, see here.)

The CNN poll suggests the pool of pragmatic adults has grown significantly since January. And that may be a sign that the tea party effect is waning and the desire to “just win” is increasing.

But if the electorate goes to the polls with anything close to the same attitude as it did when it nominated Angle, O’Donnell and Miller, candidates like Bachmann and Cain have plenty of room to grow and will be forces to be reckoned with — particularly in the early stages of the race, where voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are more than happy to send a message.

 
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