As Florida Republicans prepare to cast their ballots in Tuesday's pivotal presidential primary, two new polls show that Mitt Romney is a significantly more formidable candidate against President Obama in the Sunshine State than his closest rival for the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich.
Republicans have told pollsters in other early-nominating states that they are looking for a winner in November, and the new polls show Romney running neck-and-neck with, or even ahead of, Obama in Florida, while Obama leads Gingrich in both surveys in the critical general election state.
A new Quinnipiac University poll, released early on Thursday, shows Obama and Romney tied among registered voters, with both at 45 percent. Against Gingrich, however, Obama leads by 11 points, 50 percent to 39 percent.
The difference between the two matchups is with independent voters. Romney leads Obama by a single percentage point among independent voters, 42 percent to 41 percent, but Gingrich trails Obama among independents by 17 points, 50 percent to 33 percent.
A plurality of independent voters, 45 percent, have a favorable opinion of Romney in the Quinnipiac poll, compared to 38 percent who have an unfavorable opinion. Gingrich's numbers among independents, on the other hand, are dreadful: Just 27 percent have a favorable opinion of him, while 56 percent have an unfavorable view.
Romney "is clearly the stronger Republican candidate" in Florida against Obama, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Gingrich's "initial impression on the overall Florida electorate is not a positive one."
Meanwhile, a Suffolk University poll of likely voters, conducted for WSVN-TV in Miami and released late on Wednesday, shows Romney inching ahead of Obama, 47 percent to 42 percent. But Obama leads Gingrich, 49 percent to 40 percent. The Suffolk poll shows Obama leading Romney among independents by 6 percentage points (he performs worse among Democrats than Romney does among Republicans), but Obama outpaces Gingrich among that key group by a whopping 27 points.
"If Florida is one of the six key states that swings the national election, independents in Florida hold that key," said David Paleologos, Suffolk University Political Research Center director. "And this poll suggests that Newt won't be able to secure Florida for his party."
Voters in the first three GOP presidential nominating contests have told pollsters that the ability to defeat Obama in the fall is the most important quality they are seeking in a candidate, ahead of being a true conservative, having the right experience, or having a strong moral character. Forty-five percent of voters in the South Carolina primary last week told exit pollsters that beating Obama was most important, and more than half of them voted for Gingrich.
In Florida, likely Republican primary voters surveyed after Gingrich's South Carolina win were split on which candidate has the better chance to beat Obama, according to data from the Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday.
Obama is clearly vulnerable in the state, according to the two polls. His approval rating is higher in the Quinnipiac poll, which was a survey of all voters regardless of their likelihood to cast ballots, than in the Suffolk poll. But in each survey, more voters disapprove of the job he is doing than approve. Obama's approval rating in the Quinnipiac poll ticked up slightly from the previous poll two weeks ago, from 42 percent to 46 percent.
The percentage of voters who feel Obama deserves to be reelected also ticked up slightly in the Quinnipiac poll, from 44 percent to 47 percent, but that is still lower than the 49 percent who feel he does not deserve to be reelected.
Obama's greatest vulnerability remains the poor U.S. economy. By a 9-point margin, voters in the Quinnipiac poll say they trust Romney to do a better job on the economy than Obama. The two run virtually even on foreign policy and their strength as leaders, but Obama bests Romney when voters are asked which candidate cares more about people like them, is more trustworthy, would better handle a crisis, and shares their values.
Similarly, the Suffolk poll shows likely Florida voters prefer Romney to fix the economy or to give them personal investment advice.
The Quinnipiac University poll was conducted Jan. 19-23, and surveyed 1,518 registered voters. The margin of error is +/- 2.5 percentage points.
The Suffolk University/WSVN-TV poll was conducted Jan. 22-24, and surveyed 600 likely general election voters. Those results carry a margin of error of +/- 4.0 percent.