The Republican Party has been lurching to the right so far this election cycle, nominating the most conservative candidate possible in a number of key races. In some ways this is working to the party's considerable advantage, as it's getting voters on the right wing of the party fired up about this fall's election in a time when many Democratic voters have gotten complacent. But our polling data also indicates that it's turning off moderate Republicans, a problem for the party that could become particularly acute in 2012.
Our national poll in March found that 44% of moderate GOPers think their party has become too conservative. We saw the ramifications of that in our polls of Pennsylvania and Texas this week. In both cases the party nominated the more conservative contender, with Rick Perry beating Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Texas Gubernatorial primary and Pat Toomey more or less pushing Arlen Specter out of the GOP and clearing the field for himself in the Pennsylvania Senate contest.
In the Texas race moderate Republicans actually like Bill White better than Rick Perry. White has a +17 net favorability with them at 29/12, while a majority of them disapprove of Perry by a 53/35 margin. Perry still leads with moderate Republicans but it's only 50/39 and that's a big part of why that race is so close right now.
It's not quite as dramatic in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Pat Toomey's favorability with the moderates in his party is a tepid 30/25, but he leads Joe Sestak 58-21 with moderates. Still that 21% of undecideds has to be a concern for Toomey if those Republican voters aren't committed to him yet in a year when GOP voters are supposed to be pretty universally fired up and on the same page.
Turning off the moderate Republicans may not prove to be that big of a problem for the GOP this year because the enthusiasm gap has the potential to override any negative effect. But it's a pretty sure bet that Democratic voters, who are still pretty fond of President Obama, will come back out in 2012 to support his reelection and if a solid chunk of moderate Republicans are added to the Democratic base in 2012 there's a good chance we'll see an election with a pretty similar outcome to what happened in 2008. This Tea Party stuff may serve the GOP fine in an off year election, but whether it can do the same in a Presidential year is likely to be a whole different story.