Newt Gingrich holds a substantial 35% to 21% lead over Mitt Romney among Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters who say they are very likely to vote in the GOP primaries or caucuses. But clear majorities say there is at least a chance they would vote for either Gingrich or Romney in Republican primaries in their state. None of the other Republican candidates draws nearly as much potential support.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted Dec. 7-11 among 1, 521 adults, including 392 likely Republican primary voters. It finds that 70% support Gingrich or say there is a chance they would vote for him. Romney trails Gingrich for the nomination, but as many as 61% of likely Republican primary voters either support Romney or say there is a chance they could support him.
Just 18% of likely Republican primary voters say there is no chance they could support Gingrich and only somewhat more (26%) say there is no chance they could vote for Romney. More than four-in-ten likely Republican primary voters have effectively ruled out voting for the other GOP candidates.
The survey finds that neither Gingrich nor Romney is drawing much in the way of strong support. Just 29% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Gingrich for the nomination support him strongly; 69% support him “only moderately.” Similarly, far fewer GOP voters support Romney strongly (33%) than support him only moderately (66%). Support for both Gingrich and Romney is softer than was support for the leading GOP candidates four years ago.
However, most Tea Party Republicans have not ruled out the possibility of supporting Romney. One-in-five (20%) likely Republican primary voters who agree with the Tea Party say Romney is their top choice for the GOP nomination. Another 40% say if their preferred candidate were not in the race there is a chance they could vote for the former Massachusetts governor. About three-in-ten (31%) likely Republican primary voters who agree with the Tea Party say there is no chance they would vote for Romney.
Just 17% of likely GOP primary voters who agree with the Tea Party say there is no chance they would vote for Gingrich. Fully 75% either support Gingrich currently or say there is chance they would vote for him.
Among white evangelical Protestants who say they are very likely to vote in a GOP primary, 51% either support Romney (10%) or say there is at least some chance they would support him (41%); 35% say there is no chance they would support him. Two-thirds (67%) of white evangelicals likely to vote in a GOP primary support Gingrich (35%) or say there is a chance they would vote for him (32%); 18% say there is no chance they would vote for him.
Gingrich Fares Better than Romney among Men
Among likely Republican primary voters, Gingrich runs somewhat better among men than among women. Gingrich leads Romney by two-to-one (40% to 19%) among men who say they are very likely to vote in the Republican primary in their state. Among Republican women, however, nearly as many support Romney (22%) as support Gingrich (29%).
Gingrich runs well among likely Republican primary voters in the South: 41% prefer him for the GOP nomination compared with 16% who prefer Romney. By contrast voters in the West are divided: 30% prefer Romney, 27% Gingrich.
Intense Support Lacking for Gingrich, Romney
Among all Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters who express a preference for the GOP nomination, 34% support their choice for the GOP nomination strongly, while 64% say they back their candidate only moderately.
There is no difference in intensity between those who support Gingrich and those who support Romney. About three-in-ten among both groups (33% Romney, 29% Gingrich) say they support their candidate strongly; far more say they support their candidate only moderately (66% Romney, 69% Gingrich).
In January 2008, roughly half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favored John McCain for the GOP nomination supported him strongly. And among Democratic voters, even higher proportions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supporters backed them strongly.
Gingrich Moves to the Top
Support for Gingrich has doubled over the past month among all Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, from 16% in mid-November to 33% in the current survey. In July, just 3% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters favored Gingrich for the nomination.
Support for Mitt Romney has shown little change over this time period, and has been steady since last fall. In the current survey, 21% of Republican and GOP-leaning voters favor Romney.
In November, 22% of GOP voters supported Herman Cain for the Republican nomination. These voters have gone almost exclusively to Gingrich – no other GOP candidate has seen a significant increase in support from one month ago.
As Gingrich has moved into the lead for the GOP nomination, he also is increasingly viewed as having the best chance of any Republican to defeat Barack Obama. Currently, 35% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters say that Gingrich has the best chance of beating Obama next November, up from just 13% a month ago.
Nearly three-in-ten (28%) say Romney has the best chance of beating Obama, which is little changed from a month ago. Very few Republican and Republican-leaning voters think any other GOP candidate has the best chance of defeating Obama.
Little Change in Obama Approval
Currently, 46% of the public approves of Obama’s job performance while 43% disapprove. In November, 46% approved and 46% disapproved. From July through early October his job ratings were more negative than positive. Since August, there has been a six-point decline in the percentage disapproving of Obama’s job performance (from 49% to 43%). Obama’s rating hit a two-year high in May (56%), following the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In the current survey, 79% of Democrats approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president. About as many independents approve (41%) as disapprove (46%). Just 12% of Republicans approve of the way Obama is handling his job.