For much of the last two years, we’ve debated how much power self-professed tea party supporters would have over the 2012 presidential nomination fight.
Yes, they shocked the world by nominating their preferred Senate candidates in places like Delaware, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska in 2010 but a Senate primary isn’t the same thing as a presidential primary; the money, scrutiny and electorate are all bigger.
But, new data from Gallup suggests that the tea party retains considerable power within the GOP and its backing of Texas Gov. Rick Perry has installed him as the frontrunner in the fight for the nomination.
Roughly six in ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents identify themselves as tea party supporters and among that group Perry takes 35 percent of the vote — well ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (14 percent) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (14 percent.)
Among those who describe their support for the tea party as “strong” Perry has an even wider 30 point lead over Bachmann with no other candidate rating above single digits.
Those numbers represent a marked change from Gallup’s July national survey in which Romney was the preferred tea party choice (29 percent) and Bachmann running a close second (23 percent).
Perry has, at least for the moment, coalesced the various elements of tea party support behind his candidacy — providing himself with a support base that has propelled him to the top of the field.
While his growing support among tea party supporters is a critical piece of Perry’s path to the nomination, it’s the fact that he is also running relatively strongly among non-tea party backers that may well hold the key to his chances.
Among those who don’t describe themselves as a tea party supporters, Romney takes 23 percent to Perry’s 20 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, interestingly, places third with 16 percent.
As we have written before in this space, there are three lanes in which to run in this race: the establishment lane, the tea party/economic lane and the tea party/social lane.
Romney is clearly the leader in the establishment lane and Bachmann is out ahead in the tea party/social lane. (That could change if former Alaska governor Sarah Palin ultimately decides to run, of course.)
Perry is now occupying the tea party/economic lane — the lane that is likely to produce the next nominee since it will be filled by a candidate not considered anathema to either the establishment or the tea party/social wings of the party.
If Perry can hold on to his support from economic-focused tea parties then, he doesn’t need to beat Romney among the establishment — he just needs to stay within shouting distance and be a credible alternative if the tea party makes clear that the former Massachusetts governor is not a viable choice for them.
The Gallup poll suggests that Perry is doing just that at the moment. If he can continue to hold his lane, he will likely wind up as the nominee.