Newt Gingrich leads Mitt Romney among Republicans, but he is the weakest of the Republican candidates tested against President Obama, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday evening.
Gingrich leads Romney 37 percent to 28 percent nationally among registered Republicans likely to vote in the primaries; Rick Santorum is in third with 18 percent, and Ron Paul is fourth with 12 percent.
Gingrich has built its advantage by consolidating the heart and soul of the Republican Party: very conservative voters, the South and the Tea Party.
Though Gingrich is the preferred candidate of GOP primary voters, he performs the worst of all Republican candidates tested against Obama, including Santorum.
"Gingrich is Goldwater," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "In the general election, Gingrich not only takes down his ship, he takes down the whole flotilla."
The GOP race
Gingrich leads Romney in a four-way matchup, including Santorum and Paul, with “very conservatives” (47 percent to 17 percent), Tea Party supporters (46 percent to 21 percent), and in the South (45 percent to 21 percent). Those numbers gets even bigger in a two-way matchup. For example, in the South, one-on-one with Romney, Gingrich leads 65 percent to 28 percent.
Romney leads in the Northeast (38 percent to 32 percent), and is statistically tied with Gingrich in all other regions: in the Midwest (Gingrich leads 32-29 percent) and West (Gingrich 33-32 percent).
In December, the last time the poll was conducted, Gingrich also led (40 percent to 23 percent), but much has changed since then, including two fourth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire for Gingrich, and his decisive victory in South Carolina. The poll, conducted Sunday through Tuesday, went into the field the day after Gingrich’s victory there.
Gingrich is also viewed as the most electable candidate by GOP primary voters. He leads Romney 2-to-1 among those who picked electability as mattering most to them in a candidate. He holds a narrow lead, 46-44 percent, among those say views on issues matter most.
By a nine-point margin, Republicans said a candidate who “comes closest to your views on issues” is preferable to a candidate who has the best chance to beat President Obama.
Gingrich weakest against Obama
Romney fares best against the president, trailing Obama by six points among registered voters, 49 percent to 43 percent. That’s a four-point improvement for the president from a month ago.
Obama, however, beats Gingrich by a whopping 18 points, 55-37 percent, expanding the president’s 11-point lead a month ago.
Santorum also loses to Obama, but by a narrower margin, 53-38 percent, than Gingrich.
“More than his mojo, he’s getting back the middle of the electorate,” Hart said. But Hart warns, whether it’s the Republican race or the uptick in Obama’s ratings and standing, “I look at these results, and they have all the permanence of skywriting -- looks bold, but disappears in seconds.”
Obama, however, is still below 40 percent approval with white voters, and McInturff points out that number and the direction of the country still would indicate "The incumbent president is going to have a difficult re-election. Many of these are still problematic numbers -- as improved as they are."
Gingrich’s problems – women, independents, ‘personal standards’
Gingrich particularly struggles with women and independents. Women say they would vote for Obama over Gingrich by a wide 60-31 percent gap, far wider than the 54-38 percent difference by which Obama beats Romney.
With independents, Gingrich gets just 28 percent against Obama, who wins with 52 percent. By contrast, Obama narrowly edges Romney with independents, 44 percent to 36 percent.
Asked if the candidate has “high personal standards that set the proper tone for the country,” Romney gets a 67 percent positive score, Gingrich checks in at 32 percent.
Issues of character for Gingrich haven’t “been put to rest,” Hart said. “It may have been a great debate point last week, but there is still uncertainty among all voters.”
Challenges for Romney, too
Romney’s strength as a candidate is thought to be his business experience, as it relates to the economy. But GOP primary voters call it a “draw” between Gingrich and Romney when it comes to economic expertise, Hart said.
Sixty-one percent of GOP primary voters rate Romney's ability to deal with the economy positively, surpassed slightly by Gingrich, whom 63 percent of Republicans believe is well-equipped to handle the economy.
“If that’s the ace card for Romney,” Hart said, “it hasn’t materialized at the moment.”
Gingrich beats Romney on sharing your position on the issues by a wide margin, 56 percent to 43 percent.
But on the issue of whether Republican voters would be “comfortable” with Romney as their candidate, he gets a higher score than Gingrich – 75 percent say they would be comfortable with him versus 61 percent who say the same of Gingrich.
GOP brand problem
There’s also evidence in the poll of a Republican brand problem.
All of the GOP candidates are a net-negative in favorability ratings, with Santorum getting the best marks -- 26 percent positive, 27 percent negative.
Gingrich gets the worst -- 26-48.
Romney scores 31-36, and it’s worth noting that Bob Dole, John McCain, and George W. Bush were all net-positives at the same time in their fights for the nomination. The exception of a recent major party nominee being a net-negative at this point -- John Kerry, who was 22-26 in January 2004.
“Romney’s numbers are net-negative, which is unusual,” McInturff said.
Hart added, “It’s hard to make the case that anything but injury has come off the Republican brand off Congress and electorate.”
The congressional approval rating is near record lows of 13 percent, and more people say the GOP has brought the wrong kind of change (31 percent) in Congress than the right kind (12 percent). That represents a drop for the Republicans from a year ago, right after they took control of the House as a result of the sweeping 2010 elections. In January 2011, 25 percent thought Republicans would bring the right kind of change versus 20 percent who thought they would bring the wrong kind.
Those attitudes are also far worse than right after Democrats took control of the House in 2006 (42-15 percent) and Republicans regained a majority in 1994 (37-11 percent).
Additionally, Democrats lead in who people prefer to control Congress, the so-called congressional ballot, 47-41 percent. It’s the fourth consecutive month Democrats have led on the question and it has expanded from their two-point lead a month ago.
McInturff points out there is a “pretty significant gap” between the optimism primary voters -- 80 percent of whom believe a Republican will defeat President Obama -- and reality.
Republicans are “not going to win by simply being the option against the president,” McInturff said, adding, “The entire national environment isn’t going to do the entire job for the party.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misreported the margin President Obama wins women against Newt Gingrich as 69-21. It is 60-31, as noted above.