Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney leads comfortably in South Carolina’s upcoming primary, according to this morning’s Monmouth University Poll.
Romney registers 33% support among likely Republican voters in Saturday’s primary. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich places second at 22%. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (14%) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (12%) are in a close contest for third place. Rick Perry trails with 6%. Jon Huntsman earned 4% before he pulled out of the race on Monday.
Romney already won in the nation’s first two primary states: Iowa and New Hampshire.
According to the South Carolina poll, Gingrich (30%) does best among those who call themselves very conservative, leading both Romney (25%) and Santorum (21%) among this voting bloc. But Romney does particularly well among voters who see themselves as somewhat conservative (39%) and moderate or liberal (38%). Gingrich also does well among those who say they strongly support the Tea Party movement – a group that represents more than one-third of the likely electorate – with 31%, to 29% for Romney. However, Romney bests Gingrich among those who support the movement only somewhat (39% to 17%) and either oppose or have no strong opinion about the Tea Party (31% to 15%).
Evangelical Christians, making up a majority of likely GOP voters in South Carolina, have been considered a weak group for Romney. He appears to be holding his own, though, earning 29% of this group’s vote to 26% for Gingrich and 19% for Santorum. Romney is the clear leader among non-evangelical voters at 37% to 17% for Gingrich and 9% for Santorum.
“Governor Romney appears to be consolidating his status as the one to beat. While he doesn’t enjoy an outright majority, he performs well with every major voting bloc, possibly because the field is still crowded,” said Patrick Murray, director of the non-partisan Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
The poll asked likely South Carolina GOP primary voters which factor is more important in their decision – voting for someone who shares their values or someone who can defeat President Barack Obama. More voters choose values (51%) over electability (43%). Among these values voters, 23% support Romney, 19% Paul, 17% Santorum, and 15% Gingrich. Romney is the clear favorite, though, with voters more concerned about electability in November – earning 47% of this group’s vote to 28% for Gingrich, 12% for Santorum, and 6% for Paul.
Nearly all (89%) voters are aware that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has endorsed Mitt Romney, but it’s unlikely to sway anyone at this point. Most (71%) say her endorsement makes no difference to their vote. Of the remainder, more say it makes them less likely (21%) rather than more likely (8%) to support Romney. Among those intending to vote for Gingrich, Santorum and Paul, between 25% and 33% say Haley’s endorsement makes them less likely to support Romney and just 2% to 5% say it makes them more likely. Among Romney voters, 15% see the Haley endorsement as positive and 8% see it as negative, but the vast majority (76%) say it makes no difference in their choice.
South Carolina primary voters intend to stay loyal to the GOP even if their preferred candidate does not win the nomination. More than 7-in-10 (72%) say they will definitely vote for the Republican in November and another 12% say they will probably support the GOP nominee. Just 8% say they will vote for another candidate, 3% will not vote, and 4% are not sure what they will do. Between 75% and 83% of Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum supporters say they will definitely support whoever takes the Republican nomination. Just 53% of Ron Paul voters say the same.
The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone with 963 likely South Carolina Republican primary voters from Jan. 12 to 15, 2012. This sample has a margin of error of + 3.2 percent.