Republicans are less enthusiastic about having Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum as their potential presidential nominee than they were four years ago about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to a Gallup survey released on Thursday. For conservatives, the lackluster numbers are a worrying sign that the party’s already bitter primary fight has sapped voter enthusiasm and left the GOP weakened for the fall battle with President Obama.
Gallup reported that just 35 percent of Republicans surveyed said they would vote enthusiastically for front-runner Romney if he becomes the party’s standard-bearer. Similarly, 34 percent said they would enthusiastically support Santorum, his main challenger for the nomination and the preferred choice of the most-conservative Republicans.
That represents a precipitous drop in excitement from 2008, the poll found. In a survey released in early February of that year, 47 percent of Republicans were enthusiastic about the prospect of backing McCain, a 12-point difference from Romney's numbers today.
The same poll found that the former Massachusetts governor has not been able to increase excitement about this candidacy since his first run for president four years ago, when he competed in the primary with McCain, the eventual nominee. Exactly 35 percent of Republicans said they would wholeheartedly back Romney in 2008, the same percentage who would do so now.
The enthusiasm deficit could be indicative that Republicans remain deeply divided over their presidential prospects. Santorum, Pennsylvania's former senator, has appealed to the party’s tea party and evangelical wings, while Romney’s base is made up of the party’s upscale, secular voters. Both have struggled to broaden their appeal among Republicans outside of their core constituencies.
But the poll did find at least one prospect that excites GOP voters: voting against Obama. If Romney is the nominee, 42 percent of Republicans said they would support him but would consider their vote mainly one cast against the president; 40 percent said they would be casting their vote against Obama if Santorum is on the ballot.
If Romney is the nominee, 19 percent of Republicans said they would either support Obama or not vote. With Santorum, that number creeps up to 22 percent.
The Gallup poll surveyed 457 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents from March 8-11. It has a margin of error of +/- 6 percentage points.