The last week has been a rocky one for Rick Perry, as he became his rivals’ piñata during two Republican presidential debates. Perry showed himself to be an inexpert debater, especially when compared to the polished Mitt Romney and the passionate Michele Bachmann. After amassing huge leads in the days after his entry in the race in late August, he has spent the last few days fending off attacks for calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme. The Texas governor also been forced to play defense for his executive order mandating vaccinations of girls against cervical cancer.
But despite all of that, and dire predictions from unsympathetic observers that his perch atop the field would be short-lived, the latest poll shows his lead is undiminished. In a survey conducted from September 8-11, Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling shows him maintaining a whopping 31-18-percentage point edge over Romney. Romney’s camp may try to spin this poll as evidence Perry has stopped surging, because it merely shows him holding his ground rather than expanding his advantage. But with so many candidates still actively campaigning, it is still an astonishing feat for Perry to have gained the support of nearly a third of all Republicans. Though Perry did himself little good at the last two debates, Romney faces a steep uphill climb to even get close to the Texan because of his unpopularity with the GOP core and Tea Partiers.
PPP’s breakdown of the Tea Party vote is highly instructive about the uneven nature of the race. Though Romney does well with many GOP groups, when it comes to the 38 percent who identify with the Tea Party, he’s in bad shape. Only four percent of Tea Partiers back Romney as opposed to 33 percent for Perry and 14 percent for Michele Bachmann, who places a distant second.
If the choice is narrowed down to a two-man race between Perry and Romney, the Texan wins it 49-37. That’s down from a 16-point edge a few weeks ago, but still a large margin, especially because the only people backing other candidates who would prefer Romney to Perry are the few who back Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul.
Other interesting tidbits from the poll include the fact only one-third of Republicans agree with Perry that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. But among that group, Perry has a 40-15 advantage over Romney.
The bottom line here is despite his faltering debating style, Perry is still the candidate who appeals to the grass roots of the Republican Party. More to the point, Romney’s clear edge on the podium does not cancel out the fact conservatives neither like nor trust him. That may render his nomination ultimately impossible.
The coming weeks may provide sterner tests for Perry, and his lead may shrink in the coming months. But if Romney cannot make up some ground with conservatives and Tea Partiers, it may not matter how many debates he wins. As this poll demonstrates, the nomination is still Perry’s to lose.