The race for the Ohio Republican presidential primary remains too close to call, while Mitt Romney is poised to capture all of the delegates at stake in the two-way Virginia primary, according to new NBC News/Marist polls released Sunday, two days before the pivotal Super Tuesday slate of contests.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., holds a narrow, statistically-insignificant lead over Romney in Ohio, according to the poll, 34 percent to 32 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is third, with 15 percent, followed by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, with 12 percent. Seven percent prefer another candidate or are undecided.
In Virginia, where Romney and Paul are the only candidates to qualify for the ballot, the former Massachusetts governor leads the iconoclastic Texan, 69 percent to 26 percent. If a candidate earns a majority of the votes in the primary, he will win all of the commonwealth's delegates to the Republican convention.
But with Virginia seemingly in the bag for Romney -- and the front page of today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution showing Gingrich leading in Georgia, another big delegate prize on Tuesday -- Ohio is likely to be the most hotly contested state. The poll shows the race in the Buckeye State between Romney and Santorum coming down to the same divisions seen in other states. Among likely primary voters who say they are "conservative" or "very conservative," Santorum leads Romney, 40 percent to 30 percent. But among those who describe themselves as "liberal" or "moderate," Romney leads, 37 percent to 20 percent.
Accordingly, Santorum leads Romney by 22 percentage points among those Ohio voters who say they strongly support the tea party. Among those voters who do not support the tea party, Romney leads by nine points.
Santorum is also running slightly better among blue-collar voters in Ohio, though the divide in the state is less pronounced. Among likely Ohio primary voters who do not have a college degree, Santorum leads by five points, while Romney has a one-point edge among college graduates. By income, however, there is little evidence of a significant divide. Marist only provided income breaks of under $75,000 a year and $75,000 a year or more, and the difference was insignificant: Santorum leads by a single point among lower-income voters, while Romney is up by one point among wealthier voters.
Ohio Republican primary voters overwhelmingly think Romney will win the nomination, according to the poll, with 70 percent saying Romney will be the party's nominee, compared to just 13 percent who predict Santorum will head the ticket.
Meanwhile, the polls also surveyed the general election in both critical swing states, finding significantly better numbers for President Obama and his party than other public surveys. Among registered voters, Obama leads Romney by 12 percentage points in Ohio, 50 percent to 38 percent. The race against Paul would be slightly closer, 48 percent to 38 percent, but Obama romps Gingrich by 15 points and Santorum by 14 points.
A Quinnipiac University poll in mid-Feburary showed a much closer race, with Obama leading Romney by just two percentage points among registered voters.
The Virginia poll shows even more favorable numbers for Democrats. Obama leads Romney in the state by a whopping 17 percentage points, 52 percent to 35 percent. The president also leads Gingrich by 26 points, Paul by 21 and Santorum by 22.
A Quinnipiac University poll a month ago showed Obama up by four percentage points over Romney.
The NBC News/Marist polls appeared to have surveyed a greater proportion of Democrats-to-Republicans than other polls. In the Ohio poll, 38 percent of registered voters identified as Democrats, compared to 26 percent who said they were Republicans. Thirty-five percent of voters said they were independents; asked if they leaned toward one party or the other, independents split evenly between Democrats, Republicans and true independents. In the Quinnipiac Ohio poll, however, Democrats held just a two-point party-identification edge: That survey was comprised of 32 percent Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 31 percent independents, according to a demographic summary.
In 2008, 39 percent of Ohio voters said they were Democrats, while 31 percent said they were Republicans, according to exit polls.
The NBC News/Marist Virginia poll also shows a big edge for Democrats in party identification: 36 percent of voters surveyed said they were Democrats, while 24 percent said they were Republicans. The Quinnipiac poll, like in Ohio, showed Democrats with only a two-point party-ID advantage. Democrats held a six-point party ID edge in 2008, according to exit polls.
The NBC News/Marist polls were conducted Feb. 29-Mar. 2. In Ohio, 3,079 registered voters were surveyed, for a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1.8 percentage points. There were also 820 likely Republican primary voters; those results carry a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.4 percent.
The Virginia poll surveyed 2,518 registered voters, for a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.0 percentage points. The poll includes 529 likely GOP primary voters, for a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.3 percent.
In both states, the presidential general-election matchups were conducted among split samples and carry slightly higher margins of error.