If you have followed our IBOPE Zogby interactive polling for the Republican presidential race, you know that the leader of the field has (so far) declared that he will not run. He is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was favored in mid-March by 19 percent of GOP primary voters, putting him 6 points ahead of the second choice, Sarah Palin.
Christie’s frontrunner status says something about the other GOP contenders as well as about Republican primary voters, especially the three main branches of the party base: born-again Christians, Tea Party loyalists, and members of the investor class. If a single candidate can win a sizeable share of each group, he or she stands an excellent chance of becoming the nominee. Otherwise, prospects for all of the contenders (and for Republican chances of winning the White House) become quite muddled.
Christie, the budget hawk who has instilled terror in his state’s public employee unions, does well with all three groups. The common thread in his appeal is the perception that he has the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama. (Indeed, a January IBOPE Zogby interactive poll found that Christie was the only one of seven Republicans who led Obama head-to-head.)
Our mid-March poll tested Republican primary voter preference and attitudes for eleven of the most frequently mentioned potential Republican candidates. With such a large number of names to choose from, support is widely spread. After Christie and Palin, no one else, including Mitt Romney, reached 10 percent. (He was tied with Donald Trump at 9 percent.) We ran another list without Christie, and Palin led at 14 percent with Romney and Mike Huckabee close behind.
Vital to Republican voters’ choices will be the values and views of the candidates as well as their perceived prospects of beating Obama. We asked about both. Here is how each of the three groups broke out. (Our sample of more than 1,000 GOP voters provides very adequate sample sizes for the three groups.) The top choice for born-again Christian voters (who made up 39 percent of our Republican voter sample) was Palin, with 20 percent support. Christie was next at 16 percent, followed by Huckabee with 13 percent.
Christie’s positions on social and moral issues are arguably soft by Christian-right standards. He opposes abortion, but has said he will not use the governor’s office to “force that down people’s throats.” He also favors the New Jersey law allowing civil unions, but would veto any bill legalizing same-sex marriage. So it is unsurprising that just 7 percent of born-again Christians say Christie best represents their values and views. However, Christie runs second overall to Palin among these religious conservatives because 18 percent believe he has the best chance to defeat Obama.
The same pattern shows up among Tea Party voters (who say they are much more likely to vote for a Tea Party–endorsed candidate and make up 25 percent of our sample.) Among these voters, Palin wins the horserace with 20 percent, followed by Christie (16 percent) and Huckabee (13 percent). Palin also leads as the candidate voters see as best sharing their values and views with 32 percent, followed by Michele Bachmann (21 percent) and Christie (12 percent).
The similar results from the two subsets are explained by the fact that one-half of our Tea Party group also identifies as born-again. It’s obvious that the most important reason Christie receives a significant share of both groups’ support is the sense that he is electable.
Of the three groups, only among the self-identified investor class (44 percent of all GOP voters) does Christie place first on all three measures. Among them, he beats Palin by just 1 point on which candidate best shares their values and views, but Palin is otherwise rejected by the investor class, winning just 8 percent of their overall support and being chosen by just 7 percent as the most electable candidate. Romney, who one might think would do well with investors, gets 12 percent of their support. With Christie not included, Romney leads investors, though with a less-than-stellar 17 percent.
No one knows how well Christie would do as a presidential candidate. Most politicians look better to voters before they actually enter the race. For now, though, the New Jersey governor offers Republican voters the best combination of being acceptable on the issues while having the potential to actually kick Obama out of the White House.
John Zogby is chairman of the board and chief insights officer of IBOPE Zogby International.