Poll Spells Trouble for Palin in 2012 ... Unless It Doesn't

A new poll shows the GOP yearns for electability but still likes Sarah Palin.

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CNN and Opinion Research released a new poll this afternoon which is getting a lot of notice for Republicans signaling a strong desire to nominate an electable candidate against Barack Obama in 2012 rather than someone who is right down the line on the issues. While on its face this seems a blow for Sarah Palin's potential presidential hopes, the poll really has a mixed message from Republicans.

First there's the issue of electability. The survey asked Republicans and independents who lean Republican whether they would rather see a GOP nominee "who agrees with you on every issue that matters to you but may not be able to beat Barack Obama, or a presidential candidate who can beat Barack Obama but does not agree with you on every issue that matters to you?" A whopping 68 percent favored a candidate who can win as opposed to 29 percent who would rather lose purely than win with an imperfect candidate. [ See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

This is a legitimate question given the Tea Party dynamic in the GOP primary electorate we saw in 2010. Republicans in three states--Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware--went for ideological purity over electability and in each case their candidate lost. [ See 2010: the year in pictures.]

Palin would seem to be the living, breathing, winking definition of an unelectable candidate. Pollster.com's average of polls has her favorability deep underwater, with 32.2 percent viewing her positively and 54.3 percent viewing her unfavorably. TPM's average of polls shows roughly the same thing, prompting their Jon Terbush to write:

While other GOP contenders like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney come within striking distance of Obama in national polls, the signs point toward a blow-out for Obama if Palin emerges as the Republican nominee. Six in ten Americans said they wouldn't even consider voting Palin into the White House in an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted last December. Palin performs abysmally in state by state match-ups against Obama as well. Two polls showed that a Palin nomination could throw two states -- South Dakota and Nebraska -- into the Democratic win column for the first time since 1964.

And yet ... the same CNN poll which shows Republicans desirous of an electable candidate has Palin in a three-way statistical dead heat as the front runner for the nomination. More precisely the poll has Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, at 21 percent, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, at 19 percent, and Palin at 18 percent. Since the portion of the survey relating to the GOP has a margin of error of +/-4.5 percentage points, those three are tied statistically speaking. [ See photos of Palin and her family.]

So which is it GOP? There are a couple of answers for this apparent contradiction. One is the squishy definition of "electable." Many Republicans, primary voters especially, believe that the country is fundamentally ideologically conservative and votes accordingly. So Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, for example, were punishment of the GOP for being insufficiently conservative rather than any sort of endorsement or embrace of their opponents. If you buy this world view then there is no conflict between electability and ideological purity: The more conservative a candidate is by definition the more electable candidate. [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea party.]

The nature of the poll is also important. It was a poll of adult Americans--not registered or even likely voters. I would be interested in seeing a survey which looks at the views of likely GOP primary voters.