What the Early-State Polls Tell Us About the GOP Presidential Race

Eight takeaways from the latest surveys, which show Mitt Romney squaring off against Herman Cain and the tea party

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1. The TIME/CNN/ORC polls released Wednesday afternoon from the first four states on the 2012 Republican calendar paint a consistent picture of the Republican race. These polls show that the GOP race is being shaped by parallel but disparate movements: a more moderate and secular wing of the party is coalescing around Mitt Romney, while a more economically and culturally conservative wing continues to resist him, but remains more divided than the roughly other half of the party. That pattern is sufficient to place Romney in the lead comfortably in New Hampshire and Florida, and within the margin of error in Iowa and South Carolina, according to the surveys.

2. One consistent dividing line in all four polls is attitudes toward the tea party. In each of the states except New Hampshire, Romney polls higher among voters who are neutral or opposed to the tea party than those who say they support it. Herman Cain, in mirror image, polls substantially better among tea party supporters in all four states.

3. Cain leads Romney among tea party supporters in South Carolina (29-23) and Iowa (29-17) and ties him in Florida (26-26); only in New Hampshire does Romney lead Cain among tea party supporters (43-23). But Romney maintains the overall advantage in those states in large part because he has established bigger leads among the non-tea party wing of the party: among voters neutral or opposed to the tea party, Romney leads Cain 35-13 in Florida; 30-16 in Iowa; 39-8 in New Hampshire and 27-17 in South Carolina. In each case that's a larger advantage than Cain's edge among the tea party backers.

4. Part of Cain's problem is that Newt Gingrich attracts double-digit support from tea party voters in each state except New Hampshire, while Rick Perry reaches double digits among them in Florida and South Carolina. Apart from Cain, Romney's most consistent competitor for non-tea party voters is Ron Paul.

5. The same patterns hold when looking at voters' religious beliefs. Continuing the dynamic from the 2008 race, Romney consistently faces more difficulty among evangelical Christians than other voters. In Florida, Iowa and South Carolina the new polls show Romney running much more strongly among voters who do not identify as born-again Christians than those who do. (In New Hampshire, the sample did not provide enough born-again Christians to measure). In each of the three states with enough born-again voters to measure, Romney drew the same 19 percent of their support, almost identical to the 20 percent he won among self-identified evangelical in the cumulative 2008 GOP primary exit poll analyzed by ABC News.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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