WASHINGTON — In the Republican nomination race for the Tea Party vote, Rick Perry is beginning to outpace Michele Bachmann.
Over the past week, five separate polls surveying national Republicans or those in critical early-voting states have shown Perry leading Bachmann among Tea Party-identified voters by between 5 percent and 26 percent.
Two national polls, from Gallup on Friday and CNN Monday, showed Perry with nearly identical leads over Bachmann (35 and 37 percent respectively, to 14 percent). In South Carolina, Public Policy Polling gave Perry a 41-15 edge with Tea Party voters Monday, and perhaps most damning of all, showed him with a 54 percent to 30 percent head-to-head lead in Iowa, where Bachmann won a critical — but clearly not indicative — straw poll earlier this month.
What the polls show: Rick Perry vs. Michele Bachmann within the Tea Party
|Public Policy Polling (PPP): 8/23||Iowa|
|Magellan: 8/26||South Carolina|
|PPP: 8/23||South Carolina|
Note: These numbers represent Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry’s popularity with Tea Party-identified voters in polls of the entire field of Republican candidates.
Some Tea Party leaders on the ground say those numbers aren’t aberrations.
“I’m telling Tea Party people to research each candidate that comes through, but they are more favoring Perry once he came out,” said Judd Saul of the Cedar Valley Tea Party in Iowa. “They’re going, ‘Michele who?’”
Much of Perry’s support can be attributed to his status as the newest candidate in the Republican field, but Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bill Galston said there’s no reason to question his staying power.
“In a way, Perry is benefiting from terrific timing for his entrance in the race,” he said. The conservative base of the party was energized, but lacked the candidate to fuel that energy towards — until Perry became the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney and the experienced alternative to Bachmann.
“His explosion was almost like a sigh of relief” for conservatives, Galston said.
No new strategy yet
For now, the Bachmann camp is hiding any strategy it might have for fending off Perry fever.
A spokesman referred a request for comment to a days-old statement from the campaign’s chief press secretary: “We will execute our game plan and worry about the ultimate polls, winning the caucuses and primaries,” said spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “The first measurement that mattered was winning the Iowa straw poll, which we did. The next one will be the Iowa caucus.”
But if polls — and Saul — are to be believed, her foundation in that state might be cracking.
Perry’s style of personal interaction with voters has turned many Republicans off to the rock-star nature of Bachmann’s campaign stops, Saul said. One event in particular, the Lincoln Day dinner in Bachmann’s hometown of Waterloo, especially alienated some voters.
“Rick Perry is perceived as the guy you can sit with and have a beer with,” he said. “Michele Bachmann is not that person.”
In part, Saul blames the media for making Perry out to be the next big thing in Republican politics.
But despite the hype, Perry quickly found his audience, in Iowa and beyond. Saul echoed Galston: for conservatives, “Rick Perry came in as kind of a sigh of relief.”
Leaving out Ron Paul
Bachmann, Perry and Romney get the headlines, but Cedar Rapids Tea Party activist Dan Lucore said it’s important not to ignore Iowa Straw Poll second-place finisher Ron Paul, who still has a wide amount of support from Tea Partiers in Iowa.
The national Gallup poll of the Tea Party put Paul in a statistical three-way tie for second, with Bachmann and Romney. In Iowa, where caucus-goers will cast the first votes that count in 2012, PPP puts him in third, just three points behind Bachmann.
Lucore said the straw polls at his local Tea Party meetings generally follow national polling trends, and Paul finished second to Bachmann just before the Ames event. He said he’s seen support for Perry increase since his announcement, but they haven’t polled since his entrance into the race.
“All we do is try to promote candidates who follow our principles,” he said. “Whichever one gets the nomination, I’ll vote for them, I’ll support them.”
Putting issues before candidates
That’s the same attitude South Carolina and Florida Tea Party activists are taking — promote the issues now and the candidate later.
South Carolina, which holds one of the earliest primaries in the country, has only recently become a campaign target after many of the candidates shifted their focus away from Iowa.
Jonathon Hill, an organizer for the Anderson County Tea Party there, said it’s hard to judge how much of an impact Perry will have on the race until candidates begin focusing on the state with the same vigor they’ve shown in Iowa. Hill surmises some of Perry’s past positions, on immigration and the mandatory vaccination of schoolgirls, make South Carolina voters queasy
“Bachmann does have a lot of support,” he said. “It’s hard for me to judge how much support Rick Perry has.”
Florida, meanwhile, holds an early primary, and hosted a series of visits from Bachmann for the first time last week. A pair of Tea Party coordinators there said it’s too soon to tell who will win conservatives’ votes.
As for where the race stands now, Brookings’ Galston said a moment of truth is coming for Romney — at some point, the candidate long perceived to be the national frontrunner for the party nomination will need to figure out to combat the surging Perry.
But for Bachmann, Galston said her time may have already come and gone.
“I’m not sure of what she can do other than hope Perry makes more mistakes than she does,” he said.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.