The Greatest Threat to Ron Paul in November? Romney Voters

Reason has a fascinating new poll out today, chock-full of interesting insights about the American mood of the moment.

The most politically interesting finding: Democrats frequently note that polls consistently show widespread support for requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions.  To them, this single polling point justifies the Mandate and the totality of Obamacare.  However, Reason‘s poll shows that this support evaporates when real-world consequences are considered: its modest bulwark of support (52% approve – 39% disapprove) suddenly reverses (roughly 38% – 50%) if forcing insurers to accept patients with preexisting conditions would cause higher taxes, higher premiums, OR longer rates — and, of course, Obamacare would cause all three.  America’s tepid disdain for the Affordable Care Act continues to erode toward revulsion.  (H/T: Ramesh Ponnuru)

However, I am a Ron Paul guy this primary season, so my eyes were drawn elsewhere.  Take a look at these presidential polling results:

Quick sidebar comment: At this point in the 2008 campaign, John McCain trailed Barack Obama 44-49 in an ABC poll of all adults.  Among actual voters that November, he lost the election, 46-53.  So, based on this poll, things are looking rather grim for the Republican candidate.

However, don’t panic, Republicans!  Both polls we are looking at today are using “all adults” models, which typically lean several points left of “registered voter” models, which typically lean several points left of “likely voter” models.  For example, Rasmussen likely-voter polls taken at the same point during the 2008 campaign showed McCain winning 49-42, and Zogby’s likely voter model had them tied.  McCain steadily lost ground once the Democrats had put their party back together and started the fall campaign.  He never recovered it. </sidebar>

What’s most striking is how similar the head-on matchup numbers are, for all three candidates.  Gov. Mitt “Mr. Electable” Romney is within the margin of error for both his nearest competitors, Sen. Rick “Liberals Can’t Comprehend People Voting For Me” Santorum and Rep. Ron “Republicans Call Him Crazy To His Face” Paul.  The small differences in their levels of support are due not mainly to Romney’s greater ability to attract Obama supporters or independents, but because he is better able to unify the Republican party: it appears that 2% of the electorate (or 5% of the Romney Republican base) would sooner vote third party than vote for Rick Santorum, while another 2% of the electorate (another 5% of the Romney Republicans) would vote third party rather than let Ron Paul win.  This raises an interesting suggestion: although the Republican establishment is constantly accusing Mr. Paul’s supporters of fomenting disunity within the party, and litmus testing them as to whether they will support the eventual Republican nominee… it would appear that Mr. Santorum’s supporters are just as behaving just as destructively as Mr. Paul’s, and would sooner let President Obama win re-election than cast a vote for President Paul.

But it’s hard to draw any conclusions from such a small subset of the sample, and, besides, it’s not the most interesting part of the poll.  For that, I looked to the three-way matchups.

I have written before that Mr. Paul, if he becomes the Republican nominee, would lose a small but definite proportion of Republican voters, who would stay home.  Paul would have to make up this gap, I said, by winning some actual defections from the Obama camp (while winning decisively among undecideds).  The good news for my argument is right there in the poll: the Obama-Romney-Paul matchup shows 5% of the electorate changing allegiance from Obama to Paul.  That’s almost 12% of Obama’s overall base, which is frankly quite a lot more than I thought necessary to the Paul camp, much less what the Paul camp was likely to get in the general election.  There is a lot of sympathy for Paul’s liberty-minded campaign even in the enemy camp.

So why is it, when Paul goes against Obama mano-a-mano in the general election matchup, Obama suddenly has all that support back and more?  How can Obama get 41% against Ron Paul the independent and 47% against Ron Paul the Republican?

Only possible answer: Mitt Romney supporters.  It looks like fully 5% of the electorate is willing to support Mitt Romney, but would vote against Ron Paul.  That’s 13% of Romney’s base — enough to perfectly cancel out all Paul’s gains from defecting Obama voters, and, along with the third-party defectors in the Santorum camp, enough to leave Paul eleven points back, thus ensuring President Obama’s re-election.

There are, no doubt, marginal cases: Democrats who will vote for Ron Paul on the Independent ticket, but swore a blood oath against voting for any Republican nominee ever; Santorum voters who’ll vote for Paul but third-party if Romney is the nominee; and so on and so forth.  But, on the whole, I see no possible conclusion other than that Mitt Romney’s supporters are far more dangerous to the Republican platform if Paul is the nominee than Paul’s supporters would be if the reverse were true.  (I’m not forgetting something obvious from my statistics training, am I?  These are surprising findings, and I’m always nervous about reporting surprising findings.)

Of course, this is all fantasy.  Romney will get the nomination.  All tonight’s Wisconsin primary determines is how fast he gets it, and how many concessions he has to make to the Paul and Santorum camps to get there.  Polls close in ten minutes.  I intend to be out grocery shopping.

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