Republican primary voters nationwide prefer Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney as their party's nominee by a wide margin, despite the fact that Romney runs significantly stronger in the general election against President Obama, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday evening.
Gingrich leads Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, among registered voters who say they will vote in their state's Republican primary, 40 percent to 23 percent. No other candidate is in double-digits: Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was third at 9 percent. He is followed closely by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., with 8 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is at 6 percent, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 5 percent, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa, at 3 percent.
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In a matchup between just the top three candidates, Gingrich's lead increases to a 22 points. When those Republicans choosing Paul in the three-way matchup were asked to make a second choice between Gingrich and Romney, the former House speaker leads by 23 points.
Among those GOP primary voters, 57 percent describe Gingrich as "conservative," compared with just 29 percent who say the same of Romney.
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But Gingrich's big lead in the primary could be a boon to Obama's reelection chances, the poll shows. Among all registered voters, Obama leads Gingrich by a substantial margin, 51 percent to 40 percent. Against Romney, Obama leads by just 2 points, 47 percent to 45 percent--results that are within the poll's margin of error.
All three GOP candidates--Obama also leads Paul by 13 points--under-perform when compared with a generic Republican, whom Obama trails by 2 points.
Obama's approval rating ticked up slightly over the past month: 46 percent of adult Americans now approve of his job performance, compared with 44 percent in November. But his standing against Republicans among registered voters is marginally worse than a month ago, when Obama led Romney by 6 points and a generic Republican by 3 points.
Obama's approval rating on the economy is just 39 percent; when asked which party they trusted to do a better job handling the economy, Republicans had a statistically insignificant 3-point lead.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted Dec. 7-11 by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. There were 832 registered voters, for a margin of error of +/- 3.4 points. That subsample includes 271 GOP primary voters; those results carry a margin of error of +/- 6.0 points.