In both polls, voters were asked two related questions. Early in the survey they were asked which characteristic was most important in a candidate: 'shares your values,' 'is closest to you on the issues,' 'can beat President Obama in 2012' or 'has the experience to govern.'
The hurricane that raged from Iowa to Colorado has now given way to a momentary calm. But come Tuesday the pause gives way to another Republican nomination maelstrom, with struggles in Michigan and Arizona leading into the following week's 10-state Super Tuesday.
Candidates are battered. Voters are battered. Amidst the debris, detailed new NBC/Marist polls in both Michigan and Arizona offer some telling insights about the GOP electorate. The pollsters have been kind enough to give us the internals on these polls, and it's worth taking a moment to see what they tell us.
Religious divide holds
About 44 percent of likely voters in Michigan and 37 percent in Arizona doubt Mormons are Christian. But 56 percent of Rick Santorum's Michigan voters feel that way, as do 51 percent of his Arizona supporters.
Suspicion of Mormons in Michigan tracks very closely to political ideology. Sixty-two percent of "very conservative" likely voters doubt that Mormons are Christian. In Arizona, meanwhile, just 40 percent of "very conservative" voters share that skepticism.
Fifty-five percent of Michigan voters who strongly support the tea party see Mormons as Christian, suggesting a gap between tea party and conservative self-identifications. This is not surprising; the tea party movement is generally focused on taxes and size of government rather than on conservative social issues.
In sum, both Arizona and Michigan reveal continuing evangelical resistance to Romney, suggesting that the supposed "conservative" distrust of Mitt Romney is hard to disentangle from religious tensions.
The good news for Romney is that just 20 percent of those Michigan voters who doubt Mormons are Christian would consider Romney an "unacceptable" nominee. A matching 20 percent of Michigan evangelicals polled find Romney unacceptable, while only 10 percent of evangelicals in Arizona feel that way — more evidence that familiarity with Mormons reduces prejudice.
The Gingrich fade
The Michigan poll suggests that Newt Gingrich's fade is nearly complete. Only a month ago conventional wisdom held that if either Santorum or Gingrich left the field, the conservative vote would coalesce around the survivor. Both the new NBC polls suggest that if the lagging third wheel quit today, the effect would be minimal.
In Arizona, Gingrich polls at just 16 percent. If Gingrich left the field, Romney's share would jump from 43 percent to 50, with Santorum climbing from 27 percent to 33. In Michigan, Gingrich stands at just 8 percent, which Santorum and Romney would split evenly, leaving Romney still two points ahead.
Perhaps most damning for Gingrich are his overwhelming negatives. In Michigan, 38 percent of primary voters say that Gingrich is "unacceptable," compared to just 15 for Romney and 14 for Santorum. That puts Gingrich nearly at the level of Ron Paul, who is deemed unacceptable by 43 percent of voters in the Great Lakes State.
Gingrich's futility is further exposed by the general election question in Arizona. Among likely general election voters in one-on-one matchups against Obama, Romney led the president by nine points, Santorum by five and Paul by three. Gingrich trails Obama by one point. Arizona is a state the Republicans must win in November to prevail nationally. These numbers suggest that Gingrich is already finished, and he must know it.
Satisfaction with the GOP field remains low. Just 55 percent of likely voters in Michigan and 49 percent in Arizona are happy with the current choices. Even more telling is the enthusiasm gap. Sixty-five percent of Romney voters in Michigan and 61 percent in Arizona are satisfied with the field, but just 41 percent of Santorum's Arizona support is satisfied, and 51 percent in Michigan.
This suggests that Santorum and Gingrich both remain mere placeholders for protest votes against Romney rather than being voter soulmates.
Just 55 percent of Santorum's Michigan voters believe he has the best chance of beating Obama, and just 51 percent of his Arizona support feels that way. Conversely, well over 80 percent of Romney supporters in both states believe he has the best chance of winning in November.
Half of Santorum's support is thus either (a) fatalistic, believing that Romney will lose anyway or that a Romney presidency would be no worse then a second Obama term; (b) strategic, hoping that by prolonging the race a new candidate can be brought aboard; or (c) symbolic, thinking a vote for Santorum will not stop Romney from winning but will send a message. This last possibility is suggested in that 53 percent of Santorum's Arizona support and 39 percent of his backers in Michigan think Romney will be the GOP nominee.
In both polls, voters were asked two related questions. Early in the survey they were asked which characteristic was most important in a candidate: "shares your values," "is closest to you on the issues," "can beat President Obama in 2012" or "has the experience to govern."
Toward the end of the survey, they were asked which factor is more important: That the nominee be a "true conservative" or have the "best chance to beat President Obama."
Of those who were sure after the earlier question that "can beat President Obama in 2012" was most important, 14 percent in Michigan and 9 percent in Arizona answered the later question by saying that having a "true conservative" was more important than beating President Obama. Four percent and 2 percent in each state, respectively, were unsure.
On such slender threads hang the fates of great democracies.