Rasmussen poll puts Gingrich up by 7 nationally

Rasmussen conducted a national poll of 1,000 likely Republican primary voters yesterday, and it confirmed what Gallup’s tracking poll also shows — Newt Gingrich’s second boomlet is for real.  In the Rasmussen poll, Gingrich has vaulted to a seven-point lead as Romney settles back into the mid-20s:

After his game-changing win in South Carolina, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich continues to ride his surge to the front of the pack among likely Republican primary voters nationwide. He now leads Mitt Romney by seven points.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely GOP Primary Voters shows Gingrich with 35% of the vote, representing an eight-point increase in support from last week. Former Massachusetts Governor Romney now draws 28%. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s support is little changed at 16%, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul picks up 10%. …

Support for Gingrich has jumped a total of 19 points in two surveys since early January, while Romney’s support has held steady in that same period. Gingrich’s highest level of national support to date, however, came in late November when he captured 38% of the vote after receiving less than 15% in prior surveys. This came following businessman Herman Cain’s decision to quit the race as conservative Republicans looked for an alternative to the more moderate Romney.It is worth noting that 41% of GOP voters nationwide are certain of their vote at this time, but 50% could still change their mind between now and their primary. Santorum’s supporters are the most likely to say they could still change their minds at some point.

Romney had made it to 30% last week when Gingrich’s national numbers first started spiking again, but slipped only a little as Gingrich shot past.  The withdrawal of Rick Perry from the race probably made a significant impact on Gingrich’s support; Perry got 4% in the last poll but endorsed Gingrich on his way out, and almost all of the rest could be explained in small shifts from Romney and Ron Paul, whose support declined a little more than Romney’s between the two polls (both within the margin of error, however).

The favorability ratings of the two top candidates have begun to equalize, at least among likely Republican primary voters.  Romney gets a 68/28, while Gingrich improved to a 64/33, closer than they have been in the past.  However, among independents, the difference is more dramatic, with Romney at 65/33 and Gingrich at 53/45.  Just as in Florida, Gingrich scores low on personal character among likely primary voters, only getting 9% as “best personal character” — in this survey falling below even “Not Sure,” while Santorum leads with 37% and Romney gets 31%.  I warn about this in my column for The Week today, that the risk/reward calculation is a lot more problematic with Gingrich than with Romney or Santorum:

The difference between the two is that Gingrich is perceived to be a fighter, someone who will take on the media, the entertainment industry, and Barack Obama with ferocity unmatched in the field. But with that ferocity comes a number of complications, some of which have been evident in polling all along, and corroborated in Rasmussen’s Florida poll this week. When it came to issues of character, 41 percent of likely voters chose Romney as having the best personal character, while Santorum came in second with 30 percent — and Gingrich a distant third with 11 percent. National pollster Quinnipiac showed Gingrich’s  favorability at a net -12 (30 percent approval versus 42 percent disapproval) among all registered voters in late November, when he first led in the primary, while Romney got a 36-31 (+5) result. The Fox News poll from this month was even worse: Gingrich has a 27-56 (that’s a negative 29) favorability rating, compared to 45-38 for Romney and a 51-46 for Barack Obama. (Though a new Washington Post poll does show Romney’s unfavorable rating climbing to 51 percent among independents — the first time he’s been viewed this poorly in years.)

This is where the risk/reward calculation gets very tricky for Gingrich and his supporters. The more Gingrich attacks in all directions, the more polarization we can expect in those numbers, and the more likely the election becomes about Gingrich than Obama. That is exactly what Democrats want — to avoid the usual dynamic of a re-election bid becoming a referendum on the incumbent and to make it about the alternative. Having a bland challenger might not excite the base, and that could force Republicans to pay a price in organizing and fundraising. However, nominating a candidate for the top of the ticket that excites the party base while alienating everyone else — and handing Democrats a boogeyman to attack — may end up producing a net negative support, especially with the disparity consistently shown in favorability ratings for Gingrich, Romney, and Obama.

Still, we’d need a good national poll or two of likely general-election voters to determine just how much of a risk differential there would be, especially with the latest WaPo survey indicating that the general-population negatives have begun equalizing.

In getting back to the matchups in Rasmussen, Gingrich leads by 11 points among Republicans (38/27) and 23 points with “very conservative” voters.  It’s closer among independents, who back Romney 30/26, and “somewhat conservative” voters are a virtual tie at 33/32 Romney.  Gingrich wins men by 14 but loses women by two points still.  Romney wins voters under 40 years of age, but Gingrich wins the rest, and Gingrich is soaring among evangelicals, 43/19 over Santorum, with Romney in third place.

Of course, all this took place before last night’s debate.  Gingrich took a couple of body shots in that event, but didn’t have a collapse by any stretch of the imagination.  I suspect that Romney may have stopped the bleeding after South Carolina, but I doubt that he was able to swing momentum back to his campaign.