Supporters of Rick Santorum claim that Newt Gingrich's continued presence in the GOP race is undermining the ability of Republican voters to nominate a "conservative" alternative to Mitt Romney. The former House speaker should bow out, they say.
Gingrich supporters dispute that argument. Santorum and Gingrich aren't head-to-head competitors, but allies, they say, keeping the GOP race wide open while denying the nomination outright to the former Massachusetts governor.
Who's right? Apparently, the Gingrich camp is.
In two just-released polls, one conducted by Gallup, the other by Fox, Gingrich supporters were asked who they would vote for if their preferred candidate were no longer in the race. In the Gallup poll, 39 percent said Santorum but an equal number, 40 percent, said Romney. In the Fox poll, the results were broadly the same.
In theory, this means a Gingrich withdrawal would boost Santorum and Romney equally, nullifying an advantage for either man.
But given Romney's current lead in delegates, and growing concerns over whether he can obtain a delegate majority, the Georgian's early withdrawal would likely make Romney's job that much easier.
At first glance, Gallup's finding may seem surprising. After all, Gingrich, according to exit polls, is drawing strong support from some of the party's most conservative voters, especially those with lower incomes, and those closely identified with the Tea Party. Aren't these the same voters that Santorum is appealing to?
Yes, but the two candidates' support bases don't completely overlap. Santorum, according to polls, is much stronger with social issues conservatives, especially abortion opponents, than Gingrich is. Gingrich is also drawing support from older voters, especially seniors, a group that tends to favor Romney over Santorum.
And Gingrich is also the candidate deemed most trustworthy on national security issues, and the strongest potential commander-in-chief. Romney, meanwhile, is seen as the most effective in managing the economy. Santorum, at 53, the youngest of the three men, is seen as the most consistent and principled, but also the least experienced.
What this suggests, in part, is fairly obvious: despite the contrasting rhetoric of the candidates, ideology alone is not driving GOP voter preferences. Santorum and Gingrich may sound more
"conservative" than Romney, but Romney has succeeded in portraying both men as Washington "insiders" who've been compromised by their long association with the "liberal establishment."
And even many hardcore conservatives who don't especially like Romney still think he's the most "electable" -- and therefore, supportable -- candidate.
The situation facing Republicans in 2012 is a lot like the one that confronted the party in 2008 when the GOP field was divided between John McCain, Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
McCain, like Romney today, was perceived as the candidate of the GOP establishment and the undisputed party "heir apparent," while Romney and Huckabee both positioned themselves as conservative "upstarts."
The difference? There was even less overlap between candidate voter bases in 2008 than there is now.
Support for Huckabee, a former religious pastor, was confined almost exclusively to social issues conservatives, who deeply distrusted the "pro-life" credentials of the other two candidates. Romney, meanwhile, had the backing of free-market conservatives and immigration critics who saw both McCain and Huckabee as apologists for "Big Government."
In theory, had Romney and Huckabee found a way to join forces, especially in South Carolina, they might have eliminated McCain, who was overwhelmingly supported by party moderates. However, ideological conflicts, combined with strong personality differences, kept the two candidates fiercely divided.
How divided? Even after eliminating Romney and Huckabee, McCain never seriously considered asking either one of them -- especially Huckabee -- to join him on the GOP ticket, despite calls from GOP svengali Karl Rove and other party poo-bahs to do just that.
In this respect, the 2012 race could turn out quite differently. Calls for party unity -- and concerns -- over electability -- are stronger than they were in 2008, in part because the stakes of losing are perceived as so high.
And while many observers doubt that a Romney-Santorum ticket is feasible -- and Romney himself seems to have ruled it out -- the Santorum and Gingrich camps have been flirting with the idea that their respective candidates might end up running together.
In fact, as these latest polls suggest, maybe they already are.