In the upcoming Wisconsin primary, billed as perhaps the final opportunity to change the trajectory of the Republican presidential contest, frontrunner Mitt Romney leads Rick Santorum by seven percentage points, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll. But should he capture the nomination, Romney would start out as the underdog against President Barack Obama, whom Romney trails by double digits.
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Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during an event at NuVasive, a maker of devices intended to improve spinal care, in San Diego on March 26, 2012 in California.
In Wisconsin’s April 3 Republican contest, the former Massachusetts governor gets support from 40 percent of likely primary voters, including those who are undecided yet leaning toward a particular candidate. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gets 33 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul gets 11 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gets 8 percent. Seven percent of respondents are undecided.
The poll – conducted March 26-27 – is consistent with the findings of a recent Marquette Law School survey, which found Romney leading Santorum by eight points. The Wisconsin race follows a familiar pattern: Romney holds the advantage over Santorum among liberal and moderate Republicans (43 percent to 24 percent), conservatives (42 percent to 33 percent), non-Tea Party supporters (42 percent to 31 percent), and those who earn $75,000 or more annually (47 percent to 32 percent).
Read the NBC News/Marist Poll
Meanwhile, Santorum leads among very conservative primary voters (42 percent to 33 percent), strong Tea Party supporters (40 percent to 32 percent), and evangelical Christians (40 percent to 29 percent).
So far in all the GOP contests where there has been exit polling, Romney has won in every contest where evangelical voters have accounted for less than 50 percent of the electorate. And he has lost in every contest where that number has been higher than 50 percent.
The evangelical percentage among likely Wisconsin GOP primary voters, according to the NBC/Marist poll: 41 percent.
Obama leads in the general election
Looking ahead to the general election, the survey shows Obama holding a sizable advantage over his Republican opposition in this battleground state, which he carried in 2008 but where Republicans made big gains in the 2010 midterms.
Obama leads Romney in Wisconsin among registered voters, 52 percent to 35 percent, with 13 percent undecided. And he edges Santorum, 51 percent to 38 percent, with 11 percent undecided. The poll suggests, however, that both Romney and Santorum would have room to grow in the general election, given that a substantial portion of the undecided vote leans Republican.
Benefiting Obama is growing optimism about the state of the economy (52 percent believe the worst is behind them), as well as a more negative perception of the Republican Party (48 percent say the Democratic Party does a better job in appealing to those who aren’t hard-core supporters, while just 32 percent say that about the GOP).
What’s more, there’s a significant gender gap: Obama leads Romney among women by 25 points (55 percent to 30 percent) and men by 12 points (50 percent to 38 percent). The president’s job-approval rating in Wisconsin stands at 50 percent.
Divided over the recall
As for the recall contest of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, 46 percent of Wisconsin voters say they will support him in that race, while 48 percent indicate they’ll vote for the eventual Democratic candidate who will face off against the incumbent governor.
The approval rating for Walker – who sparked a firestorm of criticism in his effort to curb collective-bargaining rights for the state’s public-sector workers – sits at 48 percent approval, 48 percent disapproval. According to the poll, a majority of likely Republican voters say they’re following the recall more closely than the GOP presidential primary race, 51 percent to 37 percent.
The NBC/Marist poll of Wisconsin was conducted March 26-27 of 2,792 registered voters (with a margin of error of plus-minus 1.9 percentage points) and of 740 likely Republican primary voters (plus-minus 3.6 percentage points).