WASHINGTON — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the early front-runner among potential Republican candidates for president in 2012, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
While former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin commands the national spotlight, turning out tea party activists and headlining rallies, for now it's Romney who claims the lead at 25 percent, months before an official field takes shape. Palin, GOP nominee John McCain's 2008 running mate, took second with 18 percent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tied for third place with 16 percent. Finishing out the pack were Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty with 6 percent, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels with 4 percent and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour with 2 percent.
The survey of 815 registered voters, conducted last Tuesday through Thursday, also highlights more concerns for President Barack Obama and for the Democrats, who are fearful of losing their congressional majority in the November elections.
On the surface, Americans are divided over whether they want Republicans to take over Congress: Forty-eight percent say yes and 46 percent say no.
However, among voters who describe themselves as "very enthusiastic," 62 percent say they want Republicans in charge. Similarly, Republicans have the edge when those who "definitely" plan to vote are asked which party they'll vote for in their own districts.
For the first time, a majority of registered voters — 54 percent — said Obama had fallen short of their expectations for him as president. The figure was even more pronounced — 59 percent — among voters younger than 30, the very group Obama hoped to energize permanently.
The president's approval rating among registered voters was 45 percent, dragged down by those who fear that the worst of the economic crisis is still to come. Among independents, 54 percent disapprove of the job he's doing as president and 40 percent approve, the first time his approval rating with the group has been negative.
Just 16 percent of young voters were "very" enthusiastic about voting in November, compared with 43 percent of voters 60 and older, a group that's more likely to vote Republican. Independents are much less enthusiastic than Democrats or Republicans are, meaning partisan turnout could be key.
"It means there's an enthusiasm gap out there that Democrats have to address, or hold on to your hats in November," said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which performed the survey.
The survey asked 369 Republicans or Republican-leaning independents whom they favor among seven potential primary candidates.
Palin, Gingrich and Huckabee could be canceling out some of one another's support, Miringoff said, especially among Southern and conservative voters. Combined, they count a greater share of support than Romney does. It's also so early that name recognition is driving much of the findings.
"It is not unusual for someone at this point in the presidential election cycle to be an asterisk but emerge" months later, he said. Romney withdrew from his party's nominating contest four years ago after losing key early states and began laying the groundwork for a 2012 campaign.
Nevertheless, Miringoff said, "The fact Romney's doing this well and Palin is not dominating are both very interesting."
Voters who call themselves conservative preferred Romney to Palin. So did self-described supporters of the tea party movement; 25 percent preferred Romney and 19 percent Palin.
The poll found Romney's strongest appeal among college graduates and voters in Western states, while Palin did better with voters who don't have college degrees, voters younger than 30 and voters from the South. Both did well with voters from the Northeast.
Palin's weakest demographic in the primary preference poll — and Romney's strongest — was independent women. Just 11 percent of independent women favored Palin; 33 percent favored Romney.
Regionally, Romney was weakest in the South, a problem that's lingered since 2008. For now, 15 percent of southern Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor Romney while 21 percent prefer Palin, and Gingrich and Huckabee each have 19 percent support.
Non-college grads slightly favored Palin, with Romney close behind. College grads voiced a clear preference for Romney — 29 percent — followed by Gingrich at 21 percent. In a potentially ominous sign for Palin, just 11 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with college degrees preferred her.
This survey of 815 registered voters, including 369 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, was conducted last Tuesday through Thursday. The results are statistically significant at plus or minus 3.5 percentage points and plus or minus 5 percentage points, respectively. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations. Residents 18 and older were interviewed by telephone. Phone numbers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers. The two samples then were combined.
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