Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has surged to a wide lead over Mitt Romney for the 2012 Republican nomination, but either leading candidates would face a daunting path in the general election against President Obama, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The survey shows Mr. Gingrich backed by 40% of Republican voters, compared to 23% for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. That represents a tripling of Mr. Gingrich's support from the NBC/WSJ poll last month, fueled in part by the departure from the race of business executive Herman Cain after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul stood in third place with 9%, to 8% for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and 6% for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew 5% and 3%, respectively.
Mr. Gingrich draws his strongest support from self-described conservatives and supporters of the Tea Party movement. Some 70% of Republican voters call themselves conservative, and 57% see the former Speaker that way, too. Just 29% of Republicans consider Mr. Romney conservative, the poll shows.
Yet that strength in the nominating process, which begins with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, masks Mr. Gingrich's weakness with the broader electorate next November. The telephone survey of 1,000 voters, conducted Dec. 7-11, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.
Americans view Mr. Gingrich unfavorably by a margin of 16 percentage points (24% positive, 40% negative); swing voters, who expressed openness to backing either party's nominee in the general election, view Mr. Gingrich unfavorably by a 3 to 1 (16% positive, 48% negative).
Mr. Romney also is viewed unfavorably by a plurality, with 32% expressing negative views and 24% positive.
That suggests a need for either leading contender to repair his image among the broader electorate once the GOP voters have settled the nomination battle. So will the party as a whole. The GOP is rated unfavorably by a margin of 21 percentage points; Democrats are also rated unfavorably, but by a lesser 10 percentage point margin.
"The two Republican front-runners are facing an electorate where, other than among their primary core groups, they're not in terribly good shape," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the NBC/WSJ survey with his Democratic counterpart Peter Hart. "They're known, but they're starting in fairly weak condition."
"The Republican Party for the next four months is really on the razor's edge," Mr. Hart added. "They clearly have a superlative opportunity to capture the White House. The question is, will they self destruct?"
The poll also makes the GOP opportunity clear. Some 69% of Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction, and just 39% approve Mr. Obama's handling of the economy — by all accounts the number one issue in the election. Mr. Obama's overall job approval ticked up slightly to 46% from 44% in November.
In a prospective general election matchup, some 45% of Americans said they'd probably vote for the Republican nominee, compared to 43% for Mr. Obama. But the president fares better when matched against Mr. Gingrich, drawing 50% to the former speaker's 41%.
Mr. Romney fares better, trailing Mr. Obama by a narrower 47% to 45% margin. That finding supports the former governor's argument that he is more electable next november than Mr. Gingrich.
Developments in Mr. Obama's favor include a slight easing of pessimism about the economy. Some 30% of Americans predict the economy will improve in the next year, up from 25% in November; the proportion predicting tougher times dropped to 22% from 28%.
Mr. Obama also benefits from robust support about young voters, low-income voters, African-Americans, and the swelling constituency of Hispanics. He also receives credit from voters for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and for bringing troops home from Iraq.
At the same time, the president is struggling among senior citizens, blue-collar workers, Southerners and whites. Voters fault him for failing to improve the economy and for increasing spending.
Moreover, personal evaluations of Mr. Obama have faded slightly after the political turbulence of the past year. A year ago, Americans expressed favorable views about Mr. Obama by a 48%-38% margin; today, the margin has shrunk to 45%-42%.
Americans personal regard for the president, even if they disagree with his policies, has sometimes been characterized as his "ace-in-the-hole," 'Mr. Hart noted. But now "it looks more like a jack than an ace."
Mr. McInturff described the rival Republican and Democratic coalitions as "hardened silos" that leave relatively few voters up for grabs in the 2012 homestretch. "There's going to be a huge amount of money spent on a pretty small part of the political landscape."