Jim Lo Scalzo / Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
Why the difference between Mitt Romney, left, and Newt Gingrich, right? Look no further than the two men's favorability ratings.
WASHINGTON - Exactly three weeks until the first Republican presidential nominating contest in Iowa, front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have two different challenges, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Romney faces a challenge with the Republican primary electorate, trailing Gingrich nationally by 17 percentage points as nearly two-thirds of Republicans view him as either liberal or moderate.
Gingrich, meanwhile, faces a challenge with the general electorate, as half of all voters say they wouldn’t vote for him in November, and as he trails President Barack Obama by more than 10 percentage points in a hypothetical contest -- compared with Romney’s two-point deficit versus the Democratic incumbent.
“Romney has not caught on [with Republican voters],” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “And Gingrich is so deeply flawed.”
“I think the Republican Party for the next four months is on the razor’s edge,” Hart adds. “Here is a year where they have a superlative opportunity to capture the White House. The question is whether they will self-destruct.”
The two Republican presidential frontrunners have one thing in common: they both have electability problems. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
Gingrich leads the GOP pack
According to the poll, Gingrich, the former House speaker, is the first choice of 40 percent of GOP primary voters -- the highest percentage any Republican presidential candidate has received in the party horserace so far.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the first choice of 23 percent of Republicans. He’s followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 9 percent, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 6 percent, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 5 percent, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 3 percent.
Reduced to a three-person GOP race, Gingrich gets 53 percent, Romney gets 31 percent and Paul gets 13 percent.
And in a two-way Republican contest, Gingrich leads Romney by 23 points, 59 percent to 36 percent.
What’s helping Gingrich and hurting Romney? Look no further than ideology.
Fifty-seven percent of Republican primary voters view Gingrich as a conservative, 28 percent see him as a moderate and 10 percent believe he’s liberal.
By comparison, 53 percent of them view Romney as a moderate, 29 percent see him as a conservative and 11 percent believe he’s a liberal.
“Romney’s problem has always been ideology,” Hart says.
Yet Romney matches up better against Obama
But while Gingrich runs ahead of the Republican pack, he doesn’t fare as well as Romney in a hypothetical general-election race.
Obama leads the former House speaker by 11 points among registered voters, 51 percent to 40 percent. But the president’s lead narrows to just two points against Romney, 47 percent to 45 percent.
Against a generic Republican, 43 percent say they will probably vote for Obama, while 45 percent say they will probably vote for the GOP candidate.
Why the difference between Gingrich and Romney? Look no further than their favorability ratings.
Gingrich enjoys strong numbers among Republicans (46 percent positive vs. 21 percent negative), conservatives (42 percent positive vs. 23 percent negative) and Tea Party supporters (54 percent positive vs. 16 percent negative). In fact, they are higher than Romney’s numbers among these same three key Republican groups.
But Gingrich struggles with other important voting blocs -- like women (20 percent positive vs. 38 percent negative), independents (16 percent positive vs. 40 percent negative) and suburban residents (25 percent positive vs. 41 percent negative).
By comparison, Romney fares better among women (22 percent positive vs. 31 percent negative), independents (21 percent positive vs. 29 percent negative) and suburban dwellers (29 percent positive vs. 30 percent negative).
What’s more, 50 percent of registered voters say they would not vote for Gingrich in a general election -- compared with 45 percent who said that about Obama and 44 percent who said that about Romney.
“Romney has work to do,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster. “But Newt starts in a difficult position” for the general.
'A year to forget'
Besides the 2012 numbers, the other headline from the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is the public’s continued dissatisfaction with the state of the country and the state of American politics.
Just 22 percent believe the nation is headed in the right direction, though that’s a three-point rise since November.
Also, 42 percent label the current Congress’ performance “as one of the worst” ever -- the highest number on this question dating back to 1990. An additional 33 percent view it below average and 21 percent call it average.
Only 2 percent label it above average, and 1 percent calls it “one of the best” ever.
And nearly half of respondents -- 49 percent -- say that 2011 has been a below-average year, while an additional 27 percent see it as one of the worst years.
When asked what was the most disappointing event of the past year, 31 percent cite the wealthiest 1 percent getting richer and the middle class declining; 29 percent say the lack of an economic recovery; and 27 percent say it was Congress’ failure to reach a long-term agreement to reduce the deficit.
“2011 was a year to forget,” Hart, the Democratic pollster, observes. “There are no smiles, there is no sense that the world is coming together.”
He adds, “It’s a year that we just can’t wait to let go.”
But there are some tiny rays of optimism in the poll. For instance, 30 percent believe the economy will get better in the next year, a five-point increase from last month and the highest percentage on this question since April.
Obama’s up-and-down year
As for Obama -- who faces a re-election contest in November -- 2011 was an up and down year.
In January, his job-approval rating shot up to 53 percent in January after his well-received speech on the tragic Tucson shootings. It also surpassed 50 percent after Osama bin Laden was killed in May.
But it sunk to 44 percent -- for three-straight NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls -- after the debt-ceiling debate over the summer.
In the current poll, Obama’s approval stands at 46 percent, a two-point increase since last month.
“For President Obama, 2011 was a year that started out with a lot of promise,” Hart says. “But at the end of the year, it has all melted away.”
The poll was conducted Dec. 7-11 of 1,000 adults (including 200 reached by cell phone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.