Polls in Flux, Conservative Base Still Looking for a 2012 Candidate

Social conservatives are still looking for a better option than Romney

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With several months still to go before any actual ballots are cast, the race for the Republican presidential nomination remains fluid.

According to the most recent polls, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain is surging, threatening former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's frontrunner status. Equally surprising is the remarkable resurgence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom most of the chattering class had written off months ago.

Cain is now at 27 percent in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, jumping 22 percentage points from six weeks ago and pushing Romney back into second place at 23 percent. Gingrich is at 8 percent in this particular poll, putting him in middle of the pack among the remaining GOP candidates but performing better than he has in recent weeks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Another national poll, this one conducted by Public Policy Polling has Cain at 30 percent, Romney at 22 percent and Gingrich at 15 percent, which is good enough for third place. Thursday's Rasmussen Daily Presidential Tracking Poll, has Cain and Romney tied at 29 percent and Gingrich at 10 percent.

An instant analysis of the numbers suggests that Romney, as the GOP establishment's candidate, continues to hold steady while the party's conservative base is still looking for a candidate—having apparently soured on Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both of whom established and then lost early leads.

It's still too early to say it's a three man race, but, as the primaries draw closer, it looks like the field is narrowing.

[See photos of 2012 GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail]

That may be deceptive. The numbers in these new national polls conflict with the results of the various straw polls that have been conducted at various conservative gatherings, the latest of which was the Values Voters Summit last weekend in Washington, D.C.

The winner of that poll, which is supposed to show where "values voters" are lining up as the fight for the GOP nomination moves forward, was, surprisingly, Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul, who is a favorite of libertarians generally unconcerned with social issues.

While seemingly incongruous—ultra-libertarian Ron Paul carrying the day among voters concerned primarily with social issues—the results can be easily explained away once you factor in the close to 600 people who registered for the conference on its final day.

[Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]

These late entrants voted in the straw poll and then left, but not before, according to several attendees. challenging—and not in the friendliest way—the representatives of groups exhibiting at the conference about the importance of social issues to the center-right coalition.

Assuming that most of those votes went to Paul, it is likely that the "real" winner of the straw poll was Cain—who finished second in the balloting (but by less than 600 votes) and whose campaigns themes are more in line with the opinions of the attendees at that particular conference.

The fluidity in the GOP field is not surprising. The "Anyone but Romney" contingent within the GOP base is strong but not unified around any one candidate. That will change over time, especially as delegates are awarded according to the results of the early primaries. But, because many of them are now going to be parceled out in proportion to the number of votes garnered rather than on a "winner take all" basis, it may be some time before the field settles.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.
  • See photos of 2012 GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail
  • Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?