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What we know so far about Rick Perry’s electability

at 11:20 AM ET, 09/06/2011


WATERLOO, IA - AUGUST 14: Republican presidential candidate Texas governor Rick Perry arrives at the Black Hawk County GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner August 14, 2011 in Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (Scott Olson - Getty Images)
Ever since Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) entered the race for president, the conventional wisdom has been that he could be a great primary candidate, but wouldn’t necessarily be the GOP’s strongest general election contender.

“He can sound more Texas than Jerry Jones, George W. Bush and Sam Houston combined, and his muscular religiosity also may not play well at a time when the economy has eclipsed culture as the main voter concern,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Added the National Review’s Stanley Kurtz: “I think it’s fair to say that, as it stands today, he’d be a riskier pick than Romney.”

Added GOP consultant Alex Castellanos: “The suburbs won’t put Elmer Gantry in the Oval Office.”

Ouch.

In fact, this developing meme is pretty pervasive among the political chattering classes. A survey of political insiders by the National Journal last week showed 69 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats think Mitt Romney would be the better GOP nominee against President Obama.

But is there any real substance to the idea that Perry is just too Texas and too conservative for Washington?

After the jump, we dig a little deeper into recent polling and try to draw some conclusions.

For its part, Perry’s team calls polls conducted this early “meaningless” and contends that talk about electability is useless.

“Electability is the fool’s gold of politics,” said chief Perry strategist David Carney.

But so far, people who argue that Romney is the better general election candidate feel vindicated whenever a new poll on the 2012 race is released. That’s because basically all of the surveys have shown Romney faring better against Obama than Perry.

In recent weeks, national polls from Gallup, Quinnipiac University and CNN have all shown Romney faring at least a few points better than Perry. And the same dynamic has been borne out in polling taken in Florida and Pennsylvania – two states that could be very important in the 2012 general election.

Perry backers note that the difference between the two Republicans has often fallen within the margin of error, and that it is likely due to the fact that more people are familiar with Romney. And that’s a completely fair argument. An AP-Gfk poll shows Romney’s name ID at 80 percent, compared to 69 percent for Perry.

In other words, it’s completely normal for a lesser-known candidate to fare worse than a candidate who people know. But is that the whole reason for Romney’s slightly better poll numbers?

Maybe not.

In fact, there are several reasons to believe Perry could have more trouble in a general election against Obama.

The first is that the Texas governor is a more polarizing figure.

This is pretty evident already, and even though it’s a dynamic that could change, it’s already pretty telling.

Even though Perry has lower name ID than Romney, the AP-Gfk poll showed that more voters either feel “very favorably” or “very unfavorably” towards Perry than Romney. Even though 69 percent of people knew Perry well enough to rate him, nearly half of those people – 33 percent – felt strongly enough to rate him either very favorably or very unfavorably. For Romney, 80 percent know him well, but only 25 percent have more extreme opinions of him. For Perry, 21 percent of people already feel very unfavorably towards him, compared to 16 percent for the better-known Romney.

A new Politico/George Washington University Poll out today shows the same thing.

Second, Perry fares noticeably worse among independents and educated voters.

Quinnipiac showed Romney leading Obama by six points among independents, while Perry trailed by two. And while Romney and Perry have similar unfavorable ratings among independents, Romney’s favorability (39 percent) is twice as high as Perry’s (19 percent).

The situation is the same with college-educated voters, who give Romney a 44 to 31 split on favorable-unfavorable ratings, but Perry a negative 22 to 34 split.

The Franklin and Marshall College poll in Pennsylvania offered similar findings in regards to independents and educated voters. In that poll, Romney led Obama 47 percent to 34 percent among those making more than $75,000 a year, while Perry trailed Obama by four.

“It is hard to see how a base-oriented Texas governor is going to be what swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado are really looking for — especially in a time where demographics are moving in a Democratic direction and moderate/independent white voters are so key to a winning GOP coalition,” said Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

It’s important to note that all of this polling is simply a snapshot in time and is based on only a few weeks of Perry’s candidacy. That means it can and will change.

What’s more, digging too deep into the polling crosstabs can yield some pretty unusual findings because the sample is much smaller.

For now, the limited polling we’ve seen endorses the contention that Perry is more polarizing and may have problems with more educated and affluent voters, who tend to come from the suburbs.

But this picture is still very incomplete.

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