Gingrich surges to lead in three new polls

New Iowa polls today from the Washington Post/ABC series, PPP, and a South Carolina poll by Winthrop University show what has been pretty much accepted now in the Republican presidential primary — that Newt Gingrich has picked up considerable momentum for his nomination bid.  Gingrich now has substantial leads in both states, the first and third in the process that begins in just four weeks, but does that make him a new favorite to win it all?  Let’s start with PPP’s analysis, which delves into some of the qualities that could answer that question:

Newt Gingrich has taken the lead in PPP’s newest poll of Iowa Republican caucus voters with 27% to 18% for Ron Paul, 16% for Mitt Romney, 13% for Michele Bachmann, 9% for Rick Perry, 6% for Rick Santorum, 4% for Jon Huntsman, and 1% for Gary Johnson. …

Gingrich’s rise to the top is being fueled by strong support from seniors and the Tea Party.  With voters over 65 he’s at 37% leading Romney’s 18% and Paul’s 11% by 19 and 26 points respectively. With Tea Party voters Gingrich is at 35% with Bachmann actually coming in at second with 23%, Paul in third at 14%, and Romney all the way back at just 4%.

How has Ron Paul eclipsed Mitt Romney in Iowa?  It’s a consequence of having only one party caucus event this cycle, rather than both as in 2008.  However, Romney has other issues as well:

Paul’s benefiting from the lack of action on the Democratic side this year. 20% of likely caucus goers are either Democrats or independents and with them he’s leading the way with 28% t0 18% for Gingrich and 13% for Romney and Bachmann. He’s also very strong with younger voters, getting 23% with those under 45 to 21% for Gingrich, 16% for Bachmann, and 15% for Romney.

When PPP polled Iowa for the first time this year in January 57% of voters had a favorable opinion of Romney to 26% with an unfavorable one.  Now he’s at only 49/45, representing a 27 point decline in his net favorability over the course of the year. Perhaps most troubling for Romney, only 48% of those who voted for him in 2008 say they’re planning to do so again this year.

The biggest surprise in this poll might be Michele Bachmann’s bounce back into double digits.  As those Tea Party voters scratch their heads and wonder how they ended up supporting Gingrich, it’s possible that Bachmann might get a second look.  At least in the PPP poll, she’s within the MOE of Romney and almost within the MOE of Paul.  Keep an eye on Bachmann in the next couple of weeks.

Gingrich scores a bigger lead in the WaPo/ABC poll:

With 33 percent support among likely caucus-goers in the new poll, Gingrich runs well ahead of his two main rivals, Romney and Paul, a libertarian whose passionate following and anti-government rhetoric have made him a durable force in the race. Both are at 18 percent. …

Gingrich, according to the survey, has advantages that extend well beyond the horse race that put him in an enviable position in the final weeks before the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, which serve as the formal start of the long nominating season. On electability, empathy and handling the economy, he does as well as or better than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has long been described as the nominal front-runner for the nomination, or Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).

In this poll, it’s Rick Perry rather than Bachmann who comes in fourth with double-digit support (11% among likely caucus-goers), although Bachmann finishes with 8% and fifth place.  Unfortunately, Bachmann finishes first among likely caucus-goers in this poll for the candidate whom they would definitely not support for the nomination, at 23%.  And unfortunately for Mitt Romney, he comes in tied for second in this question at 18% with Herman Cain, with Ron Paul coming in fourth at 16%.

Here, Gingrich wins most of the internal quality questions among likely caucus-goers.  He leads on understanding the problems voters face, having the same values, and being able to stand up for his beliefs.  He now surpasses Romney in perceived electability by five points, and in experience by an overwhelming margin (43/16).  Unless something happens to significantly derail Gingrich, he’s going to have the momentum rolling into the January 3rd caucuses.

That may be even more true in South Carolina.  Gingrich leads in the Winthrop survey 38.4/21.5 over Mitt Romney, with Rick Perry a distant third at 9%.  No Republican has won the nomination while losing two of the first three contests, although the RNC’s enforcement of punitive proportional seating for states that moved up their primaries (Florida especially) might make history less applicable in this cycle.  Romney may have to decide whether to go after Gingrich in South Carolina where Romney probably won’t have much more traction than he has now, or in Iowa where he might be able to end the Gingrich phenomenon before it really gets started.