For Republican candidates hoping to win the White House in 2012, the best message may also be the simplest: I’m not President Obama.

That’s according to a new message-testing survey conducted on Facebook by SocialCode, an ad agency that serves the social-media behemoth. (SocialCode is owned by The Washington Post Co.)

SocialCode randomly paired up five messages (values, health care, economy, anti-Obama and national security) with seven possible GOP hopefuls — former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Sarah Palin of Alaska and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah; former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.); and Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Tex.) — on the Facebook pages of users in Iowa and New Hampshire. They then analyzed the number of people who clicked “like” on a particular message/candidate.

More than one in four — 26 percent — “liked” the anti-Obama message, and it was the top message for each of the seven candidates tested. Interestingly, health care was the second most popular, with 21 percent, and the economy clocked in third, with 18 percent. That’s not to say the economy doesn’t remain the most pressing issue of Election 2012; it simply means an anti-Obama message or a health-care pitch generated more “likes.”

Values, long a pillar of the social conservative movement in the GOP, received just 17 percent — the same showing as a national security message.

Of the seven candidates, only Palin performed markedly better when her image was paired with a values message vs. an economic one, suggesting that her base would be significantly different from that of the other candidates.

The findings of the SocialCode study line up with the buzz in the Republican activist and donor worlds: that the messenger is ultimately less important than the message when it comes to beating Obama in 2012.

“Our base understands we need leadership in the White House that is focused on creating jobs and tackling Washington spending,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “They are 100 percent committed to making Barack Obama a one-term president, and as soon as we have chosen a nominee they will be united behind them to ensure a GOP victory.”

That sentiment provides something of a counterweight to the heavy focus on the alleged weaknesses of the current Republican field.

In the wake of no-go decisions by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, there has been considerable speculation about a possible late entrant. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he is rethinking his lack of interest in the race, is considered the most likely to jump in over the coming weeks.

But a look at the race over the past few months reveals the strength of a purely anti-Obama message. The best example? The rapid rise of businessman/
reality-television star Donald Trump in polling the 2012 GOP field. Trump’s ascent, according to Republican and Democratic pollsters, was fueled by his willingness to take the fight to Obama at all times and on every issue.

That Trump chose to focus on the non-issue of Obama’s citizenship proved the limits of his never-all-that-serious campaign, but the confrontational tone he adopted is likely to leave a lasting imprint on the GOP contest. (Trump decided against running last month.)

The power of the anti-Obama message will be on display Monday night in a Republican presidential debate at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. Romney called Obama a “failure” in a speech in the Granite State earlier this month announcing his intention to run for the GOP nomination. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, never one for rhetorical understatement, said recently that the president has “wrecked our economy and centralized power in Washington, D.C., and robbed people of their freedom.”

Expect plenty more of that from the seven men and women assembled on stage Monday night. Whoever emerges as the most articulate spokesperson for the anti-Obama message will have a leg up on winning the party’s nomination next year.