Poll of eight states: Romney trails other major presidential contenders among conservatives

Actually, that’s overstating it slightly: He does okay in his pop’s home state of Michigan, and he manages to eke past Gingrich for third place in some metrics in Wisconsin, but in the other six — including bellwethers like Ohio, Missouri, and North Carolina — he’s fourth out of four. By a country mile, in some cases.

We’ve polled eight states, not including Massachusetts, since the 2010 election ended. Romney has the lowest favorability rating of the Republican top 4 with conservatives in every single one of those states except Michigan, where he probably benefits from his dad having been the Governor. And it’s not like Romney is just slightly less well liked than the others with conservatives- it’s a large gap, particularly when you compare him with Palin or Huckabee. Romney’s average favorability is 58%. Gingrich is next worst at 64%, followed by Huckabee at 73%, and Palin does best at 77%…

And because conservatives make up the lion’s share of Republican primary voters, it should come as no surprise that his issues with them are now leading to poor numbers for him overall in these early snapshots. Of the last eight states we’ve polled Romney has led in only one- Michigan- and even there he could only salvage a tie with Huckabee. Huckabee has led in four states overall with Palin ahead in three and Tim Pawlenty ahead in his home state. Romney’s average performance has been 15% with Gingrich at 16%, Palin at 20%, and Huckabee at 21%.

Palin leads the field among conservatives in all eight states, 22/21 over Huckabee, with Gingrich third at 15 percent and Romney fourth at 14 percent. Check out his numbers in Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina, especially — bearing in mind that as Palin, Huck, and/or Newt start to fade earlier in the primaries, their conservative supporters are likely to consolidate behind whoever’s left in that group of three, making Romney’s task even more difficult.

He’ll look at those numbers and murmur to himself “McCain, McCain, McCain” as a reminder of how powerless grassroots conservatives can be to stop RINOs in a primary, but that analogy doesn’t hold. Partly because of his immigration stance and partly because of his media-friendly sanctimony towards the right, Maverick was even more widely despised by the base than Mitt is, I think, notwithstanding the latter’s health-care apostasy. But he was (more or less) acceptable anyway as a nominee given that (a) there were no conservative rock stars in the field to provide a clear contrast and (b) with Bush’s approval so low and Republicans in such disfavor, a centrist nominee could be sold as the last, best chance to hold the middle and keep the White House. In 2012, by contrast, you’ll have Palin running and (maybe) Pence and a Mike Huckabee who’s much more widely known and who’s spent two years framing himself as a hardline fiscal conservative. And you’ll have a Republican base that’s fresh off a midterm landslide and anxious to go on offense against a weakened Obama, which means they’ll be less willing to settle for a moderate deemed untrustworthy even by some centrists who might otherwise sympathize with him. The GOP hasn’t nominated a “true conservative” since Reagan (Dubya, avatar of “compassionate conservatism,” hardly qualifies despite the left’s demonization of him); many grassroots believers will be thinking, “if not now, when”? Why settle for Bob Dole when you might have a shot to nominate Goldwater?

All Mitt can do, I guess, is (a) hope that Palin’s negatives stay high and scare off GOP fencesitters on the electability question, (b) quietly lobby for GOP primaries in blue states to be winner-take-all instead of proportional, and (c) do whatever he can to make sure that states run closed primaries instead of open ones. I know that last part is counterintuitive — wouldn’t Romney benefit from centrist independents being able to vote for him? — but Democrats are so eager to face Palin in the general that I think PPP’s right about them perpetrating a little “Operation Chaos” of their own. There won’t be any Democratic contest to vote in, so if you’re a liberal who thinks Obama will walk all over Sarahcuda, why not cross over and vote for her in the GOP primary if you’re allowed?