As regular readers might guess, I mostly liked Jay Newton-Small’s argument for why Rick Perry isn’t quite through yet. I continue to believe that if Mitt Romney doesn’t win, Perry remains the most likely nominee. And Newton-Small makes a good case for why Perry should at any rate stay in the race for now.

But I’m going to call out one claim: that “The anti-Mitt Romney vote is still at 70%.” There’s just no reason to read the polls that way. Yes, I know, for those of us who have been following the GOP race since midnight or so on election night 2008, it seems that Romney has been running forever and that anyone who isn’t with him now has probably made an actual decision to oppose him. But that’s just not true. Voters (as Newton-Small notes elsewhere) just aren’t paying attention yet. Really. They don’t see Romney as a guy who has been running forever; they see the whole thing as just a bunch of shuffling around well before the real election happens next year. They are in many ways wrong about the contest in general — but not, of course, about their own perception of it.

Let me put it this way…a whole lot of you are going to watch the Super Bowl, right? But a whole lot of you who will be watching in January and February have no real idea of who is doing well so far this season. I know I often run into casual baseball fans in late September who will watch some of the playoffs and World Series, and they ask me which teams are in it this year. They just don’t focus that early. And yet by the end of the World Series, they’ll not only be watching, but they’ll wind up with strong opinions about various players and strategies and the rest.

What seems to be driving the various surges for fringe candidates, whether it’s Trump, Bachmann, Cain, or Gingrich (and, to be sure, the same was true for Perry’s brief stay on top of the polls) is more like approval of the name that’s been dominating the news lately. In other words, I don’t think voters who are asked their current vote intentions are carefully considering the various choices; they’re hearing in the list of candidates the one who they’ve heard about a lot lately, and saying that they like that candidate. Now, granted, that’s not all, because we can see some of the variation by party group that we would expect if these were real preferences. Essentially, I do think that a fair-sized chunk of the GOP electorate really has settled on Romney. But for the rest, they’re just (probably) echoing back and approving of whoever is in the news. They won’t have to choose between the candidates for a while now (if at all), and so mostly they aren’t doing that.

The best hint you can get of Romney’s ceiling isn’t the horse race head-to-head numbers; it’s his unfavorable numbers, which run right now at around 20% of all Republicans (24% of those who recognize his name). But even that has very limited utility; after all, we’ve just seen Newt Gingrich dramatically improve his favorable/unfavorable ratings, and surely Newt’s unfavorables were a lot more deep-seated than Romney’s. I do think it would be nice to see some one-on-one trial heats, by the way; I don’t recall seeing any during this cycle, but those might give us some more useful hints.

It remains possible that there are groups of Republicans out there who absolutely oppose Romney, and that his support really is capped. It just isn’t the case that we know that yet. So far, we can’t say that there is an anti-Romney vote, and it’s a mistake to interpret his stable-but-lowish polling numbers as if they imply a cap.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.