But one cliche about polling that's inarguably true is that they're snapshots of a moment in time. It shows you where people's heads are at; what they think is important, what they seem to want, what misconceptions they hold, etc. If not predictive, polls can still be informative.
So looking at a New York Times/CBS News poll out today can tell us a lot about Republican primary voters, even if it doesn't tell us much about who will win that primary. This poll, like a recent CNN poll, finds Republican voters unimpressed with their choices. The NYT poll finds that "nearly 60 percent of Republicans cannot point to a single candidate about whom they are enthusiastic," while CNN's showed "No opinion/No one" in the lead, with 45% of respondents.
But Steve Benen finds a useful bit of information within the text of the Times reporting of their poll; Republican candidates will have to walk a fine line if the hope to become president. And that line is drawn between "crazy enough to win the primary" and "not too crazy to win the general election." Looking at the facts, it seems that line may not actually exist, but rather there's an overlap between the two.
[The poll] showed that Republicans who are considering making presidential bids will have to woo a party that largely identifies with the Tea Party movement -- more than half of Republican voters said they considered themselves Tea Party supporters -- and has questions about President Obama's origin of birth.
A plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they believed Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was born in another country; 22 percent said they did not know where he was born, and 32 percent said they believed he was born in the United States.
These are the voters GOP candidates must impress -- and then go on to impress general election voters. "[T]he effort not to believe the worst about the GOP base is a tough sell," Benen writes. "When 47% of Republicans, literally years after the birther garbage was debunked, believe the president was born in another country, it reinforces the notion that there's a deeply ugly strain of madness that runs through Republican politics."
And of course there is. If you want a good idea of what a voter in the GOP base looks like, you don't have to look farther than Michele Bachmann. Bachmann seems to be entirely driven -- and "informed" -- by rightwing talk radio and wingnut blogs. The vast, vast majority of the things shes says are completely untrue and -- if you forced me to guess why -- I'd say it's because the vast, vast majority of things she believes are untrue. This is a party suspicious of educated "elites" and so relies on a folk mythology to make up their history and their reality. They aren't political adherents, they're religious fanatics, complete with a strict orthodoxy.
But even Bachmann recognizes that birtherism -- as much as it's a part of that orthodoxy -- is a losing position. Her advice for birthers: "Move on."
Still, other issues betray that "deeply ugly strain of madness." That Barack Obama is a secret Communist, that the UN is basically the enemy, that cutting taxes always raises federal revenues and reduces unemployment, that global warming is a massive conspiracy, the xenophobic belief that the religion of Islam and the existence of immigrants constitutes a threat, and the strangely anarchist/authoritarian belief that government is evil, unless it's used to force women to remain pregnant against their will. That craziness, that fizzing, bubbling undercurrent of lunacy, will guide the GOP primary as surely as conjurations of Reagan's ghost will dominate Republican debates.
There will be insanity, because the base will demand it.
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