Perry's Problem: A Pitch That Contradicts Decades of GOP Rhetoric

The Texas governor's poll numbers are sharply down, and reversing the trend won't be easy given his backgroundPerry in FL - Chris Carlson AP - banner.jpg

What's most surprising about the new ABC News/Washington Post poll measuring support for GOP primary candidates is how drastically Rick Perry's support has fallen among tea party voters. Though supported by 29 percent of Republicans as recently as early September, Perry now polls at just 16 percent. Which GOP voters are responsible for the 13 point drop? "The falloff... has been particularly steep among those aligned with the tea party movement. In early September, Perry had a 3-to-1 advantage over any other candidate among those 'strongly' backing the tea party, but his supported has plummeted from 45 percent to 10 percent in this group," the paper reports.

It's no surprise that these voters are fickle. They fancy themselves uncompromising purists. Introduce them to a new candidate, spend a few weeks scrutinizing his record as never before, and they're bound to become disillusioned with anyone who has ever had to govern, and thus compromise (whether with political opponents or principles or the voters to whom they inevitably pander).   

The Washington Post write-up of the poll goes on to detail the specific areas where Mitt Romney is outperforming his rival in cowboy boots. "When Republicans were asked to evaluate Romney against Perry directly, they split about evenly on five issues, with the former Massachusetts governor holding slight edges on several, including issue No. 1: the economy," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen report. "Romney has big - 20-point - advantages over Perry on two important questions: experience and electability." And if you think about it, the results make perfect sense.

For decades, Republican Party orthodoxy has held that entrepreneurs in private enterprise are the heroes of the economy: they create jobs, sign the fronts rather than the backs of paychecks, and possess more knowledge about bringing prosperity than any ten politicians and bureaucrats.

It's no wonder that Romney, successful businessman and one term governor, is the preferred candidate on the economy, and regarded as having superior experience when compared to a rival who has spent his whole career inside the confines of government. Inserted into an Ayn Rand novel, Perry would likely as not wind up a villain, the kind of pol with whom Hank Rearden regrets having to deal, and who gives a rival of Dagney Taggart a taxpayer-funded subsidy that confers an unfair advantage. Meanwhile, Romney would be the ambitious self-made man who suffered a regrettable bout of moral confusion, like Francisco d'Anconia or Gail Wynand -- the sort of character whose unseemly actions are mourned but forgiven. And Herman Cain would be Ellis Wyatt, a likable hero, but ultimately incidental to the plot. 

Put another way, if Perry wants to convince GOP voters that he is the strongest candidate on jobs and the economy, he'll practically be forced to advance the proposition that his experience in government is superior to experience in business -- he's already tried to draw favorable contrasts of that kind in debates -- and that's a hard sell for the average Republican, who has thought otherwise for as long as he remembers, however much Perry's charisma appeals to him.

The Post poll suggests that a lot of Perry voters are abandoning him for Cain, and that fits my analysis. A self-made businessman who made a fortune without help from campaign donors, and has more claim to running as an outsider than a longtime governor, Cain gives former Perry voters all of what they were missing. Eventually, some of these voters will conclude that Cain is unelectable -- he can't bear the scrutiny sure to accompany continued success in the polls -- and they'll embrace Romney too, or so it seems to me. Then again, we're all making informed guesses.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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