Newt Gingrich is closing in on Mitt Romney in South Carolina ahead of the state's Saturday primary, according to two new polls out early Thursday, including a new NBC News/Marist poll that shows the former House Speaker gaining support after this past Monday's televised debate.
Romney still leads Gingrich by 10 points in the NBC News/Marist poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday, equal to a CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday. In the NBC News/Marist poll, Romney polled at 34 percent, followed by Gingrich at 24 percent, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, at 16 percent, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., at 14 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 4 percent.
But the results varied between interviews conducted on Monday evening, before the Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, and the results of interviews conducted Tuesday, after the debate. On Monday, Romney held a 15-point advantage over Gingrich, 37 percent to 22 percent. But on Tuesday, Romney's lead shrank to only five points, 31 percent to 26 percent.
"Romney has not closed the deal in South Carolina," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "Monday's night debate has changed the political landscape, and it's not a much more competitive contest."
Romney's six-point drop between nights—just outside each subsample's margin of error—was more pronounced among more conservative voters. He fell eight points among tea party supporters, and he dropped 14 points among evangelical voters.
For the entire poll, 61 percent of Romney supporters and 58 percent of Gingrich backers say they "strongly support" their candidate, and only 6 percent of Romney supporters said they might vote differently on primary day, which will make it difficult for Gingrich to beat Romney on Saturday.
Asked what quality is most important to them, 39 percent of likely South Carolina primary voters say they are looking for a candidate who can beat President Obama in the general election, with electability scoring higher than the candidate closest to voters on the issues (21 percent), the candidate who shares their values (20 percent) and the candidate who has the experience to govern. Fully half of Romney's supporters say electability is most important, but so do 46 percent of Gingrich voters. Supporters of Paul and Santorum are more likely to pick the candidate they say is closest to them and shares their values.
Overall, 56 percent of likely voters say Romney has the best chance to beat Obama, compared to 22 percent who say Gingrich has the best shot in the general election.
A separate Politico poll, conducted Tuesday and Wednesday by the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm based in Alexandria, Va., shows Romney leading Gingrich, 37 percent to 31 percent. Among likely Republican primary voters who say they are definitely voting for their candidate, Romney only leads Gingrich by one point.
The Politico survey may be undersampling young voters, as have many GOP primary polls. Less than two percent of likely primary voters in the Politico survey were under age 30, even though, according to exit polls, voters under 30 made up 10 percent of the 2008 South Carolina Republican primary electorate. Five percent of likely primary voters in the NBC News/Marist poll were under age 30.
The Politico poll also conducted interviews on Wednesday evening. Twenty-six percent of likely primary voters in the Politico poll said they attended church more than once a week, compared to 27 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll. In 2008, 31 percent of Republican primary voters attended church more than once weekly, according to exit polls.
The NBC News/Marist poll surveyed 684 likely Republican primary voters, for a margin of error of +/- 3.8 percent. There were 349 interviews conducted Monday and 335 interviews conducted Tuesday; the margin of error for each subsample is +/- 5.5 percent.
The Politico poll surveyed 600 likely primary voters, for a margin of error of +/- 4.0 percent.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the percentage of likely primary voters surveyed in the Politico poll who said they attended church more than once a week.