In Many Different Communities, No Clear Leader for GOP Nomination

BY Dante Chinni  May 18, 2011 at 2:42 PM EST

The 2012 election cometh, and as of right now the Republican field of candidates seems unsettled at best.

Before it has even formed, the herd has been thinned. Witness former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s step out of the election pool on Saturday or, to a somewhat less serious extent, Donald Trump’s exit on Monday.

Mitt Romney; photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

And beyond the shrinking presidential cast there is the splintered nature of the party. Normally, 18 months before a presidential election, there is look and feel to the Republican pool — a front-runner, a conservative choice, a libertarian alternative.

But a Patchwork Nation analysis of a recent Pew Research Center poll shows just how complicated the terrain is for the GOP as the clock ticks down to primary season.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney does well in five of our county types, including the swing-voting Monied Burbs. Huckabee, who just left the field, does well in four, including the aging Emptying Nests. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin leads in two of the county types, including the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters.

But this field is very much undecided. In five of the 12 county types, the leader is actually “none” — among a list that includes the above candidates plus former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. And in two county types that Republicans usually win and really need to do well in for 2012 — the formerly growing Boom Towns and the small town Service Worker Centers — the vote is divided three ways.

Potential GOP Candidate Support (Percent)

Community TypeHuckabeePalinRomneyNone
Monied ‘Burbs109.721.519.5
Minority Central20.31310.123.2
Evangelical Epicenters16.719.212.815.4
Tractor Country31.36.312.56.3
Campus and Careers15.78.63014.3
Immigration Nation16.711.910.720.2
Industrial Metropolis11.29.113.430.2
Boom Towns14.512.816.223
Service Center12.817.914.318.4
Empty Nests23.217.11120.7
Military Bastions11.14.411.128.9
Mormon Outposts12.5037.525

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

And looking at these numbers, 18 months out, leaves two distinct impressions. One, there seems to be plenty of room for new entries. And, two, despite any misgivings Republicans have about Barack Obama, winning votes and unifying GOP support in the different communities Patchwork Nation studies does not look easy.

A Walk Through The Field

Patchwork Nation’s 12 types of county offer an interesting way to parse the electorate headed into a presidential election year. As we have noted in more in-depth reportage, many of Patchwork Nation’s community types tend to vote Republican, but they come at their vote from different angles — for some the issue is primarily straight economics, for some it is cultural, for some it is national defense.

Here’s a look at what the Pew numbers suggest about the 2012 GOP field:

Mitt Romney: Romney runs strongest with two community types. He is the favorite of 21 percent in the Monied Burbs and of about 30 percent in the collegiate Campus and Careers counties. What do those places have in common? They have ridden out the recession fairly well. The unemployment rates in them are below 9 percent and the relatively high incomes in them have been a stabilizing force. And they are not culturally conservative. Romney, it’s no surprise, also does well in the Mormon Outposts, where he is the favorite of 37 percent of those surveyed — though the polling sample for those counties is too small to be statistically significant.

His weaknesses, however, are notable. He is running in third — in some cases a distant third — in the Evangelical Epicenters, the aging Emptying Nests and the African-American heavy Minority Central counties, which are largely based in the South. Those counties have not fared so well in the recession. And they are not only important in the early primary season states of Iowa and South Carolina. They will play a big role in November of 2012.

Sarah Palin: She has yet to even announce she is running, but with Huckabee out of the race, Palin’s appeal to cultural conservatives may help her immensely. Even with Huckabee in, Palin was the leader in the Evangelical Epicenters and in the Service Worker Centers. But she now may also rise to a “front-runner” position in the Emptying Nests, where there is a strong vein of cultural conservatism.

If she decides to run, that combination of factors could make her a formidable candidate in the early nominating contests of 2012.

Newt Gingrich: He is not much of a force in any of the Patchwork Nation types — he is single digits in eight of the types — but he does seem to be doing relatively well in the Military Bastions in and around military installations, where he holds a slight lead over his opponents with 13 percent of the vote. He is still far behind “none” in those counties, however, which has 29 percent of the vote there.

Its dangerous to make too much of those numbers — the sample of those polled in the Bastions was, again, extremely low — but the numbers at least suggest Gingrich could be viewed as the “national security” candidate, at least for now. And that could work to his advantage if terrorism again becomes an issue in the first post-bin Laden election.

Going Forward

Most interesting, however, may be that some of the big names that could rise to the top of the GOP list are scoring very low in this admittedly early poll. The best Pawlenty does anywhere in this poll (where there is a sizable survey sample) is the Evangelical Epicenters, where he rings in at about 6 percent. Daniels does best in the big city Industrial Metropolis counties, were he is near 5 percent.

It is still very early, of course. But the mixed feelings about the current GOP field show some real challenges for a party that has had some fault lines exposed in recent years.

The natural, cultural Main Street/Wall Street/Church Street split in the Republican Party has been heightened, by the nation’s economic troubles.

The vote in the Evangelical Epicenters, is driven heavily by cultural factors. But places like Service Worker Centers have struggled for such a long time now — they were hit early in the recession and are still suffering — that they may feel a bit of anger at the top tax brackets. Meanwhile, the moderate Republicans in the Monied Burbs, may welcome a traditional GOP candidate who argues that a rising tide raises all boats.

People living in each of those county types may be conservative, but they be demanding different “conservative” solutions in 2012. And they may each have their own candidate.

Add in the fact that there is such a high rate of disapproval in these poll numbers, with “none” as the biggest vote getter in Minority Central, Immigration Nation and, importantly, in the Boom Towns and Service Worker Centers and there is one big conclusion.

It’s early. And President Obama has his troubles with an election that is likely to be focused on a struggling economy. But the fight for the Republican nomination will likely be one tough battle and November 2012 looks no easier.