The New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican presidential primaries are separated by just 11 days on the calendar, but two polls released on Tuesday show that those states are far apart when it comes to their preference in the general election; the results suggest that the trajectory of the race in the early primary states remains uncertain despite Mitt Romney’s hopes for an early resolution and a short primary season.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has a solid lead in New Hampshire, with 35 percent support, although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is riding a wave of recent momentum into second place, with 18 percent. In South Carolina, Gingrich tops the field; Romney ties embattled businessman Herman Cain for second place.
The New Hampshire primary will be on Jan. 10, and South Carolina holds its nominating contest on Jan. 21. Both will be preceded by the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. The polls were conducted simultaneously, Nov. 18-21, by the polling co., a Republican firm with offices in Washington and New York City. The same firm released an Iowa poll last week, showing a wide-open race in that state. Taken together, the three polls present a more muddled picture of the primary season than a simple Romney-as-front-runner storyline.
Romney is leading in New Hampshire despite trailing Gingrich narrowly among tea party supporters, who made up a third of respondents, 33 percent to 26 percent. Among voters who described themselves as “very conservative,” Gingrich and Romney ran neck and neck, with 32 percent and 31 percent respectively. But among those voters who said they are “somewhat conservative,” Romney led 39 percent to 17 percent. And among those who said they are “not very” conservative, Romney led with 36 percent. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was second among this group, at 18 percent.
Pollster Kellyanne Conway says it is a two-man race in the Granite State, evidenced by the fact that among Romney supporters, more said that their second choice was Gingrich than picked any of the other candidates, and more Gingrich supporters chose Romney as their second choice than cited any other candidate.
But Conway cautions that while Romney leads, his 35 percent share of the vote means that about two-thirds of GOP primary voters favor another candidate or are undecided. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, came in third, with 11 percent, followed by Cain and Huntsman, who each had 8 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., were tied with 4 percent, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., was at 2 percent. Ten percent of likely Republican primary voters were undecided.
Romney’s lead in New Hampshire echoes two other surveys released on Monday by the American Research Group and Suffolk University.
Meanwhile, Gingrich is leading in South Carolina, with 31 percent of the vote. Cain was second, with 17 percent, followed by Romney with 16 percent. The other candidates were in the single digits: Perry at 6 percent, Paul and Bachmann at 5 percent each, Huntsman at 3 percent, and Santorum at 1 percent. Fifteen percent were undecided.
Gingrich had a wide lead among tea party supporters, outpacing Cain among this group 37 percent to 20 percent. Gingrich also had a big lead among those GOP voters aged 65 and over, with 40 percent support among that group. His strength in South Carolina and Romney’s relative weakness point to an uphill climb for the latter. The winner of the South Carolina primary has captured the GOP nomination in every nominating cycle since 1980.
Romney's “fiction of electability is oversold,” Conway wrote in an e-mail.
“The 2010 elections were the intervening, superseding factor. Republican primary voters will not be deprived of their right to choose their nominees. They are willing to buck so-called inevitability for ideas and ideological agreement. Look at all the failed candidates in 2010 who had the backing and funding of the establishment and those three magic words, ‘He can win!’ Hard-core GOP primary voters do not ask themselves ‘Who can win?’ but rather ‘Who can lead?’ ”
The New Hampshire poll surveyed 500 likely primary voters, and the South Carolina poll surveyed 505 likely primary voters. The margin of error for each survey is plus or minus 4.4 percent.