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Parsing the Polls: Who's a Fred Voter?

A series of national polls conducted in the last few weeks show that former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) is a force to be reckoned with in the coming fight for the 2008 Republican nomination.

Fred Thompson
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is making conservatives' hearts swoon. (AP)

A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey put Thompson second in the primary horserace behind only former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamic survey in the field June 5-6, Thompson took 13 percent, good for third behind Giuliani (22 percent) and Arizona Sen. John McCain (15 percent). The Post's own poll, conducted in partnership with ABC News, had Giuliani at 34 percent compared with 20 percent for McCain and 13 percent for Thompson.

That got us to thinking: What exactly does a Thompson supporter look like?

Let's Parse the Polls!

We'll start with the L.A. Times/Bloomberg survey, since that data is the freshest. Thompson's strongest subgroup in this poll was among "religious" voters, where he lead the field with 32 percent; Giuliani received 12 percent, McCain took 11 percent and Mitt Romney stood at 10 percent. (The L.A. Times pollsters define a "religious" voter this way: Someone who takes "the Bible as literal word of God who is a self-identified conservative and a 'non-Catholic Christian.'")

Thompson also runs well among men (he and Giuliani both took 30 percent) in the L.A. Times survey and with conservative Republicans, where Thompson was essentially tied with Giuliani -- 26 percent to 24 percent, respectively.

Eliminate all but the four leading candidates -- Thompson, Giuliani, McCain and Romney -- and the trend is even more clear. In that four-way race, Thompson's lead expanded to 20 points over Giuliani among religious voters (42 percent to 22 percent), while his lead among conservative Republicans extended to nine (34 percent to 25 percent). And among men, Thompson remained in a virtual dead heat with Giuliani.

Those numbers are backed up by the internals in the Post-ABC poll, where Thompson tended to run stronger among those who identified themselves as conservatives than among self-identified moderates, and better among men than women.

Thompson's two strongest demographic groups in the Post-ABC poll were married men, where he took 19 percent support (6 points higher than his overall showing among the general GOP electorate) and among people with a college degree, where he also received 19 percent support.

All of the numbers seem to bear out the conventional wisdom surrounding Thompson's candidacy -- that he is the most electable conservative in the race. Much has been made and written about the lack of energy among conservative Republicans for the current field; the candidates who look likely to have the best chance of winning don't make social conservatives' hearts go pitty-pat, and the candidates who are best on their issues don't seem to have much of a shot at winning.

Thompson's emergence as a candidate is aimed at filling that void; he is presenting himself as the fusion candidate (a la George W. Bush in 1999-2000) who is acceptable to religious and business/establishment conservatives alike. As we've noted before, Thompson is a somewhat odd choice to fill that role (he was more aligned with the maverick wing of the Republican Party during his time in the Senate), but a look at his Senate voting record shows that he was generally a by-the-book conservative.

Another part of Thompson's appeal is his role as "Arthur Branch," the district attorney on the NBC hit show "Law and Order." His tough-talking, take-no-prisoners character is surely responsible in part for his strength among male voters, who tend to be drawn to politicians who shoot straight -- or at least are able to effect straight-shootedness (if that's a real term).

For the moment, Thompson is the empty vessel that Republican voters -- especially conservatives and men -- are pouring their hopes into. Need evidence? Just 4 percent of Republican primary voters in the L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll said they would not vote for Thompson under any circumstances. Compare that with the 22 percent who said they could never support McCain and the 12 percent who said it would be impossible for them to back Romney.

When Thompson becomes an official candidate, he will inevitably slip a bit among conservative Republicans -- he'll be more answerable for things he said or did in his past public life that cast doubt on his rock-solid conservative credentials.

But if polls are to be believed, Thompson will launch his campaign with a very strong reservoir of good will among those most likely to have the loudest voice in selecting the next GOP nominee. That's an enviable position to be in.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 13, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Parsing the Polls  
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