Mitt Romney and Herman Cain are neck-and-neck among Republican voters in a new Pew Research Center poll released on Thursday, while President Obama's approval rating among all adults has edged up, with Americans now split evenly on his job performance. Romney's continued inability to break away from the rest of the GOP pack is a sign of his continued weakness among more conservative voters. The poll shows that they prefer Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney leads Cain by one point, 23 percent to 22 percent, well within the +/- 3.6 percent margin of error for the subsample of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. Gingrich was third, with 16 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and his state's governor, Rick Perry, each earned 8 percent.
There are some signs that Cain's poll numbers are suffering as a result of campaign missteps and allegations of past sexual harassment on the part of the former Godfather's Pizza CEO. The full poll was conducted Nov. 9-14, but Pew reports that from Nov. 9-11, Cain was polling at 25 percent, three points better than Romney. During the latter half of the polling period, Cain slipped to 18 percent, five points behind Romney. In the same three days, Romney ticked up one point, while Gingrich's support increased by three points. Such movement is well within the margin of error, which is higher for each half of the poll. Cain's public-relations woes intensified during the period Pew was in the field: On Nov. 7, Sharon Bialek became the first of Cain's accusers to come forward publicly, offering a graphic account of a crude sexual advance -- which Cain denied making. A day later, a federal employee, Karen Kraushaar, identified herself as another accuser.
More Republican voters think the sexual-harassment allegations against Cain are false than believe they are true: 27 percent believe the charges that forrmer female subordinates have made against the GOP presidential contender, compared with 42 percent who say they are not true; 22 percent said they don't know, and 10 percent said they haven't heard about the allegations.Tea party members are less likely to believe the allegations: 20 percent said they are true; 56 percent said they are false.
There's a sizeable gender gap, however: Romney leads Cain 24 percent to 17 percent among women voters; among men, Cain leads Romney 27 percent to 21 percent..
Romney is rated most qualified to be president by Republicans, but he is lagging among the most conservative GOP voters. Romney runs third among tea party members, who comprise roughly half of the Republican subsample. Cain leads among this group with 29 percent, trailed by Gingrich at 21 percent. Romney earns the support of just 18 percent of tea party members, compared with 27 percent of those who don't identify as tea party members.
Among older Republican voters, Romney leads, and Cain trails. Twenty-eight percent of those GOP voters aged 65 or older support Romney, 22 percent support Gingrich, and 13 percent prefer Cain.
Romney is viewed as the most electable member of the field: Asked which candidate has the best chance of beating Obama in November, 30 percent of Republicans choose Romney, while 18 percent chose Cain, and 13 percent selected Gingrich.
But beating Obama looks a little harder than six weeks ago, according to the poll. Among all Americans, 46 percent approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while 46 percent disapprove. That is a modest improvement from early October, when 43 percent approved of the president, and 48 percent disapproved.
In general-election matchups among all registered voters, Romney is the only candidate to hold Obama below the critical 50 percent mark, and he is the only candidate to lead the president among independent voters. Obama leads Romney, 49 percent to 47 percent, within the margin of error of +/- 2.5 percent for the sample of registered voters.
Romney trails despite a 12-point lead among independents, 53 percent to 41 percent. Three other candidates -- Cain, Gingrich, and Perry -- all trail Obama by double-digits, and Obama leads each among independent voters.
Romney outperforms his GOP rivals not because he is popular among Americans, but because he is less unpopular. Just 36 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Romney, while 42 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Obama, on the other hand, is viewed favorably by a 52 percent majority; 45 percent have an unfavorable opinion.
Americans have soured on Romney's GOP opponents. Gingrich is viewed favorably by 31 percent and unfavorably by 48 percent. Half of Americans have unfavorable opinions of Cain and Perry, and their favorable ratings fail to crack 30 percent.
The poll surveyed 2,001 adults, for an overall margin of error of +/- 2.2 percent. The poll included 1,576 registered voters, 738 of whom said they were Republicans or independents who lean Republican.