Gingrich Clear Frontrunner; Can’t Beat Obama

The former Speaker has the biggest lead of any candidate thus far in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

The latest NBC/WSJ poll finds that Newt Gingrich has the biggest lead of any candidate thus far in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination but that Republicans remain unenthusiastic about their choices.

MSNBC (“Romney struggles with primary voters, Gingrich with general electorate“):

Exactly three weeks until the first Republican presidential nominating contest in Iowa, front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have two different challenges, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Romney faces a challenge with the Republican primary electorate, trailing Gingrich nationally by 17 percentage points as nearly two-thirds of Republicans view him as either liberal or moderate. Gingrich, meanwhile, faces a challenge with the general electorate, as half of all voters say they wouldn’t vote for him in November, and as he trails President Barack Obama by more than 10 percentage points in a hypothetical contest — compared with Romney’s two-point deficit versus the Democratic incumbent.

“Romney has not caught on [with Republican voters],” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “And Gingrich is so deeply flawed.” ”I think the Republican Party for the next four months is on the razor’s edge,” Hart adds. “Here is a year where they have a superlative opportunity to capture the White House. The question is whether they will self-destruct.”

According to the poll, Gingrich, the former House speaker, is the first choice of 40 percent of GOP primary voters — the highest percentage any Republican presidential candidate has received in the party horserace so far. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the first choice of 23 percent of Republicans. He’s followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 9 percent, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 6 percent, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 5 percent, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 3 percent.

Reduced to a three-person GOP race, Gingrich gets 53 percent, Romney gets 31 percent and Paul gets 13 percent. And in a two-way Republican contest, Gingrich leads Romney by 23 points, 59 percent to 36 percent.

What’s helping Gingrich and hurting Romney? Look no further than ideology. Fifty-seven percent of Republican primary voters view Gingrich as a conservative, 28 percent see him as a moderate and 10 percent believe he’s liberal. By comparison, 53 percent of them view Romney as a moderate, 29 percent see him as a conservative and 11 percent believe he’s a liberal.

My late wife’s firm, Public Opinion Strategies, did the polling along with Peter Hart. They summarize the results thusly:

In the latest NBC News/The Wall Street Journal poll conducted December 7-11, Americans signal that 2011 is a year to forget. Compared to past years, 76% see 2011 as below average or one of the worst. That’s the second worse rating across nine years this poll has asked that question stretching back off-and-on to 1991.

The modestly good news is that 30% of adults think the economy will get better over the next 12 months with 22% saying it will get worse. While still grim, this is the first time the economic outlook measure has been a net positive since April.

President Obama’s overall job approval remains a slight net negative (46-48) and his Very Positive image rating is lower than his Very Negative image rating for the fourth consecutive survey. Meanwhile, both political parties have double-digit net negative image ratings.

Looking forward to the 2012 race, overall enthusiasm continues to drop and now just 43% of voters say they’re more enthusiastic about the 2012 elections than past elections. However, Republicans continue to have a steady and significant enthusiasm gap compared to Democrats. Among Republicans, 55% are “more enthusiastic” about the 2012 election compared to previous elections while just 38% of Democrats are more enthusiastic. That’s the same high level enthusiasm as November for Republicans but for Democrats it represents a five percent drop in just one month. Independents dropped precipitously from 40% “more enthusiastic” in November to 28% this month.

WSJ wants you to subscribe to read their write-up, despite it being widely available elsewhere.

While it’s noteworthy that this survey is something of an outlier–nobody else has Gingrich leading by as much–the general direction is consistent with other polling. Gingrich has led every single national poll taken in the past month and his RealClearPolitics average lead is 11.2 percent.

The bottom line is that, while I still think Romney the most likely nominee, I’m much less confident in that than I’ve been the entire cycle to date. Romney simply hasn’t broken through the 25 percent number that has been his ceiling thus far and Republicans seem willing to overlook Gingrich’s huge flaws in order to nominate someone they see as a True Conservative.

Given that denying Obama a second term is their chief goal, though, that’s not a sound strategy. MSNBC again:

But while Gingrich runs ahead of the Republican pack, he doesn’t fare as well as Romney in a hypothetical general-election race.

Obama leads the former House speaker by 11 points among registered voters, 51 percent to 40 percent. But the president’s lead narrows to just two points against Romney, 47 percent to 45 percent. Against a generic Republican, 43 percent say they will probably vote for Obama, while 45 percent say they will probably vote for the GOP candidate.

Why the difference between Gingrich and Romney? Look no further than their favorability ratings.

Gingrich enjoys strong numbers among Republicans (46 percent positive vs. 21 percent negative), conservatives (42 percent positive vs. 23 percent negative) and Tea Party supporters (54 percent positive vs. 16 percent negative). In fact, they are higher than Romney’s numbers among these same three key Republican groups. But Gingrich struggles with other important voting blocs — like women (20 percent positive vs. 38 percent negative), independents (16 percent positive vs. 40 percent negative) and suburban residents (25 percent positive vs. 41 percent negative).

By comparison, Romney fares better among women (22 percent positive vs. 31 percent negative), independents (21 percent positive vs. 29 percent negative) and suburban dwellers (29 percent positive vs. 30 percent negative). What’s more, 50 percent of registered voters say they would not vote for Gingrich in a general election — compared with 45 percent who said that about Obama and 44 percent who said that about Romney.

Gingrich’s sleaziness and general unlikability may not keep him from getting the nomination. It will almost certainly keep him out of the White House.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Peacewood says:

    In every presidential election in my lifetime (I was too young to have personal memories of the Ford-Carter one in ’76), the likeable/photogenic candidate beat out the less likeable/photogenic candidate. Every time.

    Every. Time.

    It’s a big reason why, absent a miracle Ron Paul run, Obama has the upper hand in next year’s election.

  2. ponce says:


    IIRC, you said you would vote for Obama over Gingrich.

    Is that still true?

  3. MBunge says:

    Before using these polls to pimp Romney over Newt, let’s understand that Romney is still losing to Obama and no one has laid a glove on him this election cycle. No one, Democrat or Republican, has really run any sort of hard negative campaign against The Mitt Who Walks Like A Man, and all you can say for him is that he does better than one of the most reviled political figures of the last 20 years.


  4. Hey Norm says:

    But Newt has said he is the most electable. Certainly you don’t think Newt could be wrong about anything…

  5. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: I can’t imagine voting for Gingrich, who I find morally unfit for the presidency. It’s a long way ’til next November and it’s not inconceivable that I’ll decide he’s the lesser of evils. But I’m still hoping Gingrich implodes and we wind up with one of the Mormons.

  6. DRS says:

    How long before the Republican Establishment (accepting the argument for the moment that there is such a monolithic entity) decides that waiting for Romney to close the deal just isn’t working and that it’s time to thank him for all his hard work and respectfully suggest that he consider departing from the race?

    Buy shares in popcorn companies; this will be an interesting 10 months…

  7. Jib says:

    I remained unconvinced that Romney is more likely to beat Obama than Gingrich. I know that is what the polls show but this far out the polls are virtually worthless.

    It is not that I think Gingrich has better chance than people think, it is because Romney is much weaker than people think. The line from Gingrich this week about Romney getting rich putting people out of work has been successfully used to defeat Romney in several elections. Around Sept, 2012 this will be the attack on Romney 24 – 7 and given how Americans feel about Wall Street these day, it will be especially devastating.

    So republicans should nominate who they like, not who the flawed polls say have a better chance of beating Obama. I just have a hard time understanding how Gingrich is that guy. He seems to me to be a candidate the Tea Party would hate. Been in or around Washington for almost 30 years, made huge money as a lobbyist, makes Bill Clinton look like husband of the year.

    They do seem to like how he talks. He talks with great authority even when sprouting nonsense and treats anyone who questions his world view as an idiot. Very talk radio like. Maybe that is it.

  8. steve says:

    I dont find it inconceivable that Newt could win. This is clearly a rally the base strategy. The Dems are not going to be that enthusiastic. Just the fact that James waffles and suggests he would consider voting for a man with no moral compass, an ex-lobbyist and full of hate tells us that Newt has a very good chance.


  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @steve: I don’t think Newt can win the nomination because he has little money and is unlikely to get any. The Republicans with money to give don’t like him and don’t think he can win in November.

  10. Eric Florack says:

    NBC? Given the level of water carry actions they’ve done for the left over the years, I’ll wait till the movie comes out, OK?

    And it’s early, yet, anyway.

  11. Eric,

    The NBC/WSJ poll has been more accurate over the past three years than Rasmussen. So, take that for what it’s worth.

  12. Tano says:

    @Eric Florack:

    NBC? Given the level of water carry actions they’ve done for the left…

    Sheesh, that is pathetic. Its NBC- WALL ST. JOURNAL ferchrissakes…

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Eric Florack: @Doug Mataconis: @Tano: Yes, not only is it NBC/WSJ but the polling is done by two of the pre-eminent polling firms in the country, one Republican and one Democratic.