Michele v. Mitt?

By Beacon Staff

Who will challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012? If Montana Republicans have their way, it will be either Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. At least, that’s how voters felt in June.

Those were the results released last week by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a North Carolina-based firm that spoke with 382 Montana Republican voters over June 16-19 about their presidential preferences.

When Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who has not declared she will run, is among the selection of candidates offered to Republican voters, 20 percent say they would most like to see her as their party’s pick for president next year. Bachmann, who announced her candidacy last week, is close behind with 18 percent.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney takes 17 percent, while the rest of the field fails to break double digits. Those other candidates consisted of former restaurant CEO Herman Cain (8 percent), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (9 percent), Texas Congressman Ron Paul (9 percent), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (4 percent) and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (7 percent). The option of “someone else/not sure” received 9 percent.

But when Palin is not among the candidates offered – which looks increasingly likely since she hasn’t participated in any debates or begun to assemble anything resembling a campaign organization – Bachmann surges to the front of the field as the top pick of 25 percent of Montana Republican voters. In this scenario, Romney takes 22 percent while Gingrich takes 11 percent with Paul and “someone else/not sure” close behind at 10 percent.

The results showed a similar trend in Oregon, also surveyed by PPP, where Bachmann garners 29 percent of the vote and Romney takes 28 percent if Palin doesn’t run. If Palin does run, that hands the lead in Oregon to Romney with 28 percent, followed by Bachmann at 18 percent and Palin at 16 percent.

“That’s just more indication that if Palin ends up not running Bachmann will pretty instantaneously vault to co-front runner status with Mitt Romney, provided she can continue her current momentum,” Tom Jensen of PPP wrote on his blog analyzing the Montana and Oregon polls’ results. “Obviously this is just two states but these numbers speak to the possibility for a two way race between Romney and Bachmann if Palin stays out of the field. They’re 11 points clear of anyone else in Montana and 18 points ahead of anyone else in Oregon.”

Among political observers in Montana, the results only confirmed the popularity of Bachmann and Palin with conservatives here.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Palin is at the top,” James Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana, said. “Being from the West, she is popular with a lot of Republicans.”

Describing Palin’s political persona as, “gutsy, anti-government, pro-guns,” Lopach added: “That is attractive to a good portion of those who are Republicans.”

Lopach, along with David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, characterized the poll’s results as broadly representing the two wings of the GOP, with Bachmann and Palin maintaining strong popularity among more conservative members of the party, along with tea party activists, while Romney has the support of more moderate, “establishment” Republicans.

(Romney won the 2008 Montana Republican caucus, though he bowed out of the race two days later after eventual nominee John McCain won a string of victories. State Republicans abandoned the caucus process last year and will return to an open primary election in 2012.)

Indeed, according to the PPP survey, among voters describing themselves as “very conservative,” Palin’s favorability stands at 80 percent. Bachmann also scores highest with “very conservative” voters, garnering a 58 percent favorability, while Romney’s highest favorability rating stands at 55 percent among “somewhat conservative” voters.

Though this poll offers a snapshot of voter sentiment at a point in time, any measure of a candidate’s standing taken this far ahead of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary next year should be taken with a heaping dose of salt.

In June of 2007, Hillary Clinton had a 10-20 point lead over Obama in most national polls of Democrats, and Rudy Giuliani had a 10-point lead over McCain on the Republican side.

As Lopach explained, none of the current GOP candidates amounts to a national figure, like a sitting vice president, which makes the field totally wide open and thus more prone to an insurgent candidate dominating.

“Public attention and knowledge regarding the candidates is low,” Lopach said. “What the public responds to in the media is controversy.”

Such Republican candidates, so far, include Donald Trump, who dominated headlines for several weeks making provocative statements about Obama’s birth certificate. Cain’s poll numbers improved dramatically as well following his performance in the South Carolina debate in May, but his support has dropped since.

Bachmann, who performed well in the New Hampshire debate and has been in the news after her campaign roll-out, may be benefiting from the same media attention, as few voters, besides political junkies, are paying close attention to the race’s early stages. That will change, according to Parker, toward the end of the year as voters learn more.

“I definitely think they’ll change their minds as the campaigns gear up and they get more information,” Parker said. “You’re going to see more solid polling, I would think, within the next six months.”

Parker sees the GOP field as essentially two groups: those candidates fighting for the “establishment” mantle, consisting of Romney, Gingrich and Pawlenty; and those candidates fighting for tea party support, consisting of Bachmann, Palin and Paul.

“Bachmann is a better candidate for that group, because she’s got some experience and heft,” Parker said. “I’m actually somewhat surprised that Ron Paul didn’t do so well.”

And though the candidate with the best organization, in this case Romney, tends to win the Republican nomination, Parker added, the emergence of the tea party makes the nomination ripe for taking by a more conservative candidate.

“If there’s a moment when a non-establishment candidate like Michele Bachmann could have an opportunity, it’s now,” he said.

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