Republicans More Satisfied With Presidential Candidates, But More Divided Ideologically

Stephen Morton/Getty Images; Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Analysis by Gregory Holyk and Gary Langer ( @langerresearch ):

Republicans express steadily more satisfaction with their party’s declared candidates for president, yet with a sharp division between conservatives and moderates that could portend challenges when it comes time for the party to coalesce around its ultimate nominee.

Among conservative Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a commanding 39-21 percent lead over Mitt Romney in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll . Yet among moderates the tables turn: Romney leads Perry, 35-12 percent.

There being more conservatives than moderates in the party, it’s advantage Perry. Yet, in a challenge to party cohesiveness, fewer than eight in 10 Romney supporters, 78 percent, say they’d support Perry in a general election race against Obama. More Perry supporters, 91 percent, say they’d back Romney were he the nominee.

Even with that challenge, Perry’s posting some impressive results. Thirty-seven percent of his backers “strongly” support him; Romney’s strong support is much lower, 15 percent, and down sharply, from 29 percent in July. And views of Perry as best able to defeat President Obama in November 2012 have grown among leaned Republicans from 6 percent in July to 30 percent now. Romney in the same time has lost 12 points on this score, and now trails Perry.

These two lead the field with or without Sarah Palin in the race. And while Palin plays out her adaptation of Hamlet – to run, or not to run – she faces continued deep challenges as a would-be candidate. Sixty-three percent of Americans see her as unqualified to serve as president, including 46 percent of leaned Republicans and 42 percent of supporters of the Tea Party movement. Those are large numbers to lose on the basic question of qualification for office.

Complete results from the ABC News / Washington Post Poll.

Perry, Romney and five other declared candidates – therefore not Palin – meet in a debate Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It’s their first since Perry entered the race in mid-August and promptly advanced to the front rank in support.

This poll, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, finds Perry with 29 percent support among Republican and Republican-leaning independents and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, with 25 percent, with all other declared candidates well behind.

That’s a 21-point surge for Perry since he announced his candidacy; still the difference between his support and Romney’s is not statistically significant, given sampling tolerances. Results are almost identical among registered voters (and there’s still plenty of time to register).

In another notable result, Rep. Michele Bachmann, after a summertime gain, has ebbed from 16 percent support in July to 8 percent now.

With Palin included there’s little change; a 27-22 percent Perry-Romney contest, with 14 percent for Palin, a former Alaska governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee. Her support, and Romney’s, have been essentially flat this summer, while Perry’s moved up sharply.

It’d be easy to paint these results as portraying a Perry-Romney race, and currently it is. But provisos are in order: Forty-six percent of leaned Republicans don’t pick either of these two. Both their strength-of-support levels indicate plenty of room for movement. And the future is always uncertain; at this time in 2007, Rudy Giuliani was the clear leader, with the eventual nominee, John McCain, 10 points back, and indeed a point behind former Sen. Fred Thompson, who proceeded to drop off the charts.

The general election, 14 months off, is equally uncertain. But given his growing weakness (reported in our analysis earlier today on politics and the economy), President Obama’s support has softened in most head-to-head matchups. He runs essentially evenly against Perry and Romney alike, and has lost ground against others.

SATISFACTION – All told, 65 percent of leaned Republicans now describe themselves as satisfied with the choice of candidates for the party’s presidential nomination, about as many as said so at this point four years ago. As noted, that’s advanced steadily from 43 percent in April and 54 percent in July.

There’s a strong sign that Perry’s largely responsible for the surge in GOP satisfaction with the candidates overall. Among his supporters, 81 percent describe themselves as satisfied with the Republican field overall. Among Romney’s supporters it’s 58 percent; among all other leaned Republicans, 60 percent.

Moreover, satisfaction peaks at 77 percent among “very” conservative leaned Republicans – a better Perry group – compared with 55 percent among moderates, among whom Romney prevails. That result also is supported by Perry’s greater “strong” support.

ATTRIBUTES – Nonetheless, preferences across key candidate attributes differ. That’s especially so on the economy, far and away the key issue on the public agenda and one on which Perry and Romney have been battling, Perry citing job growth in Texas, Romney, his business experience. Asked whom they trust more to handle the economy, leaned Republicans divide precisely evenly, 22-22 percent, with the rest picking other candidates, or none.

Perry comes back with a 10-point advantage over Romney, 30 percent vs. 20 percent, as the candidate best able to beat Obama in November 2012. As noted, in July, Romney beat then non-candidate Perry on this score, 32-6 percent.

Still, they’re again essentially tied on which candidate best reflects the core values of the Republican Party: 19 percent select Perry, 18 percent Romney.

Palin comes into the mix on two other attributes: On who “is closest to you on the issues,” 21 percent select Perry, 15 percent Romney, 14 percent Palin; and on who “best understands the problems of people like you,” 19 percent pick Palin, 17 percent Perry, 13 percent Romney.

vs. OBAMA – A particular cause of Republican glee may be Barack Obama’s weaknesses; as reported separately, he’s slid to a career-low 43 percent approval rating, with sharp public criticism of his economic stewardship. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say the country’s seriously off on the wrong track, the most since early 2009 – not the kind of number that inspires re-election hopes.

Clearly the Republicans have an opportunity, though they’ve hardly closed the sale. In a head-to-head matchup Obama and Perry run precisely evenly, with 46 percent support apiece; Obama and Romney are 46-47 percent (among registered voters, 45-49, not a significant difference). And Obama and Jon Huntsman are close, at 47-42 percent; it was a 10-point Obama lead in June.

Obama’s advantage vs. Michele Bachmann likewise is diminished, from 56-39 percent in July to 50-43 percent now. Against Palin he has 53-41 percent support; this too was 56-39 percent, in June.

Views of the country’s outlook inform these numbers. Among people who say the country is headed in the right direction, vast numbers support Obama for re-election. Among those who say it’s off on the wrong track, majorities support his opponents (58 percent for Romney, 55 percent for Perry). Their task is to increase that share of the disaffected vote.

Similarly, Obama prevails by a wide margin among the relatively few Americans who say they’ve gotten better off financially since he took office; more important is that he also leads

among those who say their finances have stayed the same, another group on which the GOP nominee will want to make gains. Those who’ve lost ground financially, a record 35 percent of Americans, already are heavily in the GOP camp.

Among groups, swing-voting independents divide about evenly between Obama and either Perry or Romney. Obama prevails among younger adults, a lopsided group for him in 2008, but by much less of a margin now than then. (Obama, for example, leads Perry by 20 points among young adults. But Perry leads Obama by 12 points among seniors, whose turnout is a surer bet.) Against Romney, Obama loses 14 percent of his 2008 supporters; vs. Perry, 10 percent; vs. Palin, 6 percent.

IDEOLOGY – In the GOP contest, as noted, Perry leads Romney among conservative leaned Republicans by 18 points, largely by dint of a wide 29-point Perry lead among those who describe themselves as “very” conservative. Perry also leads Romney very widely, by 30 points, among “strong” supporters of the Tea Party political movement.

Tellingly, in profile, 83 percent of Perry’s supporters are conservatives, while just 13 percent are moderates. Among Romney’s supporters, 53 percent are conservatives, 41 percent moderates.

Sixty-two percent of leaned Republicans say they’re conservatives, 29 percent moderates, a built-in advantage for Perry. Yet one result gives a moderate candidate a chance: Two-thirds of leaned Republicans say it’s O.K. for Republican candidates to take moderate positions on some issues, rather than only taking conservative positions. And strong support for some moderation is nearly twice as high as strong support for strict conservatism, 32 vs. 17 percent.

This view, too, differentiates the candidates. Among those who think GOP candidates should take only conservative positions on the issues, Perry’s well ahead of Romney, 43 to 24 percent. Among those who think some moderate positions are O.K., the two run about evenly.

RELIGION – Views on the role of religion in politics also make a difference. Forty-four percent of leaned Republicans say a political leader should rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions; 52 percent say not. Among those who say so, Perry leads Romney by 34-21 percent. Among those who see no such role for religion, 30 percent back Romney, 22 percent, Perry.

Overall, Americans by 66-29 percent say a political leader should not rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions. Support for using religious belief to inform policy decisions is higher, albeit not high, among some core Republican groups, including evangelical white Protestants, 49 percent; conservatives, 44 percent; and supporters of the Tea Party movement, 37 percent. It’s 52 percent among “strong” Tea Party supporters and the same among “very” conservative Americans.

These views play out in general election preferences. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are far less apt to say a leader should rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions, 18-79 percent.  It follows that overall, among people who do see this role for religion, Republican candidates have broad leads over Obama head-to-head (29 points for Perry and Romney alike), while for those who see no such role for religion, Obama leads by substantial margins, if not so broadly.

GOP GROUPS -  Back to the Republican contest, Perry does particularly well in comparison to Romney among people following the election very closely (+26 points), as well as among those (some noted above) who think the Republican nominee for president should hold only conservative positions (+19 points), are satisfied with the GOP field (+14 points) and support the Tea Party movement (+10 points). Perry also has a 10-point edge among men.

For his part, Romney is favored to a greater extent than Perry among, as noted, moderates (+23 points), those who oppose the Tea Party (+22 points) and leaned Republicans who are dissatisfied with the GOP field (+18 points).

The two are essentially tied among women, those not following the election very closely and people who think the Republican nominee can hold some moderate positions. They’re also essentially tied among evangelical white Protestants – 32 percent for Perry, 27 percent for Romney. That’s a better result in this core GOP group for Romney, a Mormon, than he managed in his unsuccessful race for the nomination in 2008.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample and 5.5 points for leaned Republicans. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.

ABC News polls can be found at at