It’s interesting that the race for the Republican presidential nomination is as fluid as it is, given that no primaries or caucuses have been held and that the first important straw poll, in Ames, Iowa, is still three weeks away. The narrative is confusing. Is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a clear front-runner or a pseudo leader of the pack with a fragile, even deceptive, lead? Is Rep. Michele Bachmann a conservative locomotive about to power her way through the field, or is she just another very conservative candidate? Is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty ready to play at this level and take advantage of Romney’s weaknesses? Can Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s appeal transcend the borders of the Lone Star State?
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults conducted July 14-17 gives us a new look at the 2012 presidential picture. It does not necessarily answer important questions, but it does add context. When the registered voters within the broader sample were asked, “If President Obama runs for reelection in the year 2012, do you think you will probably vote for President Obama or probably vote for the Republican candidate?” 42 percent said they will likely back Obama, and 39 percent say they will likely support the GOP candidate. This left 19 percent who said that their vote depends on the Republican candidate, that they would vote for another party, or that they are undecided. Both Obama and the generic Republican candidate are within the margin of error, with almost one in five voters still unsure, pointing to the likelihood of a very close race.
When matched against Romney, Obama held a 7-point lead, 48 percent to 41 percent, basically the same as the 6-point, 49 percent to 43 percent edge he held in the June NBC/WSJ poll. Given that undecided voters tend to break more strongly toward the challenger than to the better-known, better-defined incumbent, this points to a contest that could be too close to call. In the head-to-head matchup question that paired Obama against Bachmann, the president’s lead jumped to 15 points, 50 percent to 35 percent. It isn’t clear whether this means that Bachmann is a weaker candidate or is just less known than Romney. A slice of voters is always reluctant to express support for a challenger whom they are relatively unfamiliar with, no matter what they think of the incumbent. But either way, Obama’s failure to move above 50 percent against Bachmann should give pause to the president’s supporters.
For the second month in a row, Romney garnered 30 percent support in a GOP nomination matchup among registered voters who say that they will vote in the Republican primaries, up from 21 percent in the April survey. Bachmann has surged from 3 percent in June to 16 percent in the new poll. Perry moved up from 8 percent in June to 11 percent in the new survey. Both Bachmann and Perry seem to have benefited from the fact that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is not expected to run, was dropped from the choices in the latest poll. Combined, Bachmann and Perry received 11 percent in the June poll, while together they pulled 27 percent in the newer survey. In June, Palin received 14 percent.
For many of the candidates, the differences between how they fared in the two surveys were minuscule. Rep. Ron Paul pulled 8 percent of the vote in June and 9 percent this month; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Similarly, Pawlenty showed little change, receiving 2 percent in the new survey compared with 4 percent in June. For all of these candidates, there is little sign of movement either way. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain received 12 percent in June and 5 percent in July. That could be either a real drop or just statistical noise; more data are needed to determine which.
One potentially useful exercise is to sort the candidates into brackets. If you add up the Romney, Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman votes in the July survey, it totals 34 percent, basically one out of three Republican primary voters. Add up the Bachmann, Perry, Paul, Cain, and Rick Santorum voters, the more conservative of the two brackets, and it’s 44 percent. Gingrich always goes his own way, so it’s hard to assign him and his 8 percent to either bracket. Fourteen percent of Republicans don’t express a favorite in this field.
The economic indicators that point toward a tough environment for a president to be reelected are confirmed in this polling data. For a popular-vote victory, Obama needs to win about half of the undecided vote in the current matchups with a generic Republican—a fairly tall order. Obviously, the Electoral College vote determines the winner, but that outcome usually tracks with the popular vote (the 2000 election being the notable exception). Although it’s unclear whether Republicans will nominate the strongest possible challenger, it is pretty evident that the GOP nomination is worth having.
This article appears in the July 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.