Newt Gingrich has regained a national lead over Mitt Romney among Republican voters, who value a candidate’s positions on issues more than the ability to defeat President Obama in the fall, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The survey shows Gingrich, a former House Speaker, with 37 percent among Republican primary voters, to 28 percent for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas trailed with 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively. The national telephone survey of 1,000 Americans, conducted Jan. 22-24, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.
Gingrich had led Romney by a larger 40 percent to 23-percent margin in December — before Romney aggressively attacked him and drove down his popularity in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally. Yet the ex-Speaker's comeback win in South Carolinalast weekend has reshaped the dynamic of the race.
The NBC/WSJ poll helps explain why. By a 54 percent to 43 percent margin, Republicans called it more important to have a presidential nominee who shares their views on issues than one with “the best chance to beat Barack Obama.” Asked specifically about the candidates, 56 percent gave Gingrich high marks for sharing their views, compared to 43 percent who rated Romney highly in that category.
Other significant advantages for Gingrich: More Republicans give him high marks for being “knowledgeable and experienced enough” for the White House (78 percent to 60 percent for Romney), and he has managed to neutralize Romney’s claim that he's better able to handle the economy. Some 61 percent rated Romney strongly on the economy, but 63 percent said the same of Gingrich.
Romney has touted his superior electability – with good reason, the NBC/WSJ survey showed. While Obama holds a solid double-digit lead in potential matchups with Gingrich (55 percent to 37 percent) and Santorum (53 percent to 38 percent), the Democratic incumbent leads Romney by only 49 percent to 43 percent.
Yet Romney has other assets in the race that may boost him if the nomination race drags on. Two-thirds of Republicans rate Romney strongly for “having high personal standards that set the proper moral tone for the country,” while just one-third of Republicans rate the thrice-married Gingrich strongly on that dimension.
Gingrich has attempted to score points by blasting Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. But by a 28 percent to 13 percent margin, Republicans said that business experience makes them think more positively of Romney. Romney fared less well on the issue of his tax returns, which showed him earning more than $40 million over the last two years and paying roughly 15 percent in taxes. By 17 percent to 7 percent, Republicans said that made them think less highly of him.
But a bigger liability is news about Gingrich’s marriages. Some 30 percent said the issue made them think more negatively of the former Speaker, while just 3 percent said it made them feel more positive about him.
While the nation focuses on the GOP nomination race and Obama’s fortunes, the poll also suggests that recent political skirmishing in Washington over issues like the debt ceiling, jobs proposals, and a payroll tax cut may be improving Democrats’ prospects in races for the House and Senate. By 47 percent to 41 percent, Americans said they prefer that the November election result in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Last August, those proportions were precisely reversed in favor of the Republicans.