Republicans give Rick Perry frontrunner status in their party’s presidential primary race even as warning signs flash over his ability to win support in the general election.
The Texas governor is the preferred choice of 26 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 9-12. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney places second at 22 percent, while all of the other Republican candidates get less than 10 percent.
In a hypothetical general election matchup, Perry trails President Barack Obama among the poll’s entire sample, 49 percent to 40 percent, about twice the deficit for Romney. Perry also confronts negative reactions from Americans disinclined to vote for a candidate expressing the skepticism he has about the viability of Social Security, evolution science and whether humans contribute to climate change.
“Science is an integral part of our culture,” said Danyelle Lowers, 27, a student at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, who considers herself an independent voter. “To have such a general disregard for the sciences is rather terrifying.”
Still, positions and statements that could hurt Perry in a faceoff with Obama work to his advantage with his most immediate audience -- Republican primary voters.
“Perry leads in the primary contest in part because some of his most famous stands don’t turn off the primary electorate all that much,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. “In the general election, these issues will matter more.”
Perry, 61, who joined the Republican field last month, starts the race viewed unfavorably by 41 percent of Americans and favorably by 32 percent. More than a quarter haven’t yet formed an opinion.
The most publicized campaign issue focusing on Perry -- his characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi Scheme” -- has Americans divided. Among all respondents, 46 percent said they agree with the remark, while 50 percent said they disagree.
Among Republicans, 65 percent agree with Perry’s statements about Social Security, while 33 percent disagree. Independents are nearly equally split.
Poll participant Annie Baker, 30, a homemaker who lives in Crestwood, Kentucky, and said she leans Republican in most elections, called Perry’s terminology “strong verbiage,” even as she agreed with his assessment of the federal retirement program.
“I don’t see how it’s self-sustaining at all,” she said of Social Security. “It doesn’t seem like something that is going to be able to give us back the returns that we are giving. You ask yourself if you are ever going to see this money again.”
Some of the other positions Perry has taken could also present difficulties for him in a general election when independent voters are the key to winning.
Forty-five percent of Americans say they’d be less inclined to support a candidate who says science isn’t settled on whether human activity contributes to global warming, while 25 percent said it would make them more likely to back that candidate. Half said they would be turned off by a candidate who says evolution remains an unproven theory, with 20 percent saying they’d be more inclined to support someone who holds that view.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, men are more often drawn to Perry over Romney, while women are equally split between the two. Younger Republicans more often prefer Romney to Perry, with Romney holding an advantage of 24 percent to 13 percent among those under 35.
Perry’s polling strengths include Tea Party supporters and those who describe themselves as “born again” or fundamentalist Christians. He leads Romney 31 percent to 21 percent among Tea Party supporters, and has the backing of 29 percent among those self-described Christians, compared with 15 percent for Romney.
Romney, 64, led in most national polls of Republicans until Perry entered the race Aug. 13. Romney’s numbers in the Bloomberg poll are almost the mirror image of Perry’s -- he is stronger in the general election than in the primary contest.
A proposal from Romney, the co-founder of Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC, to eliminate taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest income for individuals making $200,000 or less per year is supported by 60 percent of Americans. Even among Democrats, 43 percent say it’s a good idea.
Romney was the only Republican tested in the poll who was viewed more favorably than unfavorably by all respondents.
Also among the entire sample, Obama leads Romney in a hypothetical match-up, 48 percent to 43 percent. Among respondents who said they are likely to vote in 2012, a group that is hard to discern 14 months before the election, Romney leads Obama, 48 percent to 45 percent.
The poll of 997 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points and plus or minus 3.6 points for likely general election voters. Among the Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the error margin is 4.2 percentage points.
Republicans with the highest unfavorable ratings are former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who has said she may reveal her presidential ambitions before the end of this month, and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whose presidential campaign has struggled to gain traction. Palin is viewed negatively by 66 percent of Americans, while Gingrich is disliked by 55 percent.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the poll, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Representative Ron Paul of Texas and Palin are all bunched together with support between 8 percent and 9 percent. Businessman Herman Cain and Gingrich follow at 4 percent, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum at 2 percent and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. at 1 percent.
With some filing deadlines for primary contests six weeks away, 57 percent of Republicans who say they will definitely vote for someone other than Obama -- or would at least consider doing so -- are happy with the field of their party’s candidates, while 40 percent say they wish they had another choice.
Poll participant Rex Hammond, 53, a business association manager who lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, said he plans to vote for Perry or Romney in his state’s primary.
‘Resonating’ With Voters
“You have to look at the campaigns that are resonating with the public,” he said. “At this point, it appears that Romney’s and Perry’s campaigns are.”
Hammond said he is watching the candidate debates as he weighs his decision to see how the two men “handle adversity” and how they “think on their feet.”
For Hammond, the most important issues are jobs and government spending.
“Our deficit is placing us in a severe insolvency situation,” he said. “Rampant government spending and over- regulation have had extremely detrimental effects on job creation in America.”
Amid a Republican nomination contest in which the Tea Party is playing a major role, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent - - view the movement as a mostly negative force in the nation’s politics, while 37 percent see it in a mostly positive light.
Among Republicans, 70 percent view Romney favorably, compared to 65 percent for Perry. Part of the difference stems from Perry being more of an unknown, with nearly a quarter of the Republican sample saying they are still forming their opinions about him.
Some of the positions on issues candidates other than Perry have taken could also prove detrimental to them in the general election, the poll shows.
Romney’s statement that “corporations are people” makes 40 percent of Republicans more inclined to support him, while 45 percent of general election voters find that statement unappealing.
Expressing opposition to any tax increase even in exchange for 10 times as much in federal spending cuts -- a position taken by all of the Republican candidates at an Aug. 11 debate - - is viewed positively by 42 percent of Republicans and negatively by 49 percent of general election voters.
Almost half of primary voters would be less interested in a candidate who wants to abolish the Federal Reserve, while 62 percent of general election voters feel that way.