Elections

Gingrich tops polls in Florida

One-time poll cellar dweller Newt Gingrich is the new star on Florida’s political stage.

But unlike with other presidential frontrunners, Gingrich’s support looks strong, with 41 to 47 percent of voters favoring the former House speaker, according to surveys released by InsiderAdvantage and Public Policy Polling, respectively.

Mitt Romney’s support is at 17 percent and starting to wane, both polls indicate. And Herman Cain’s numbers are also declining. He’s polling at 15 percent, a fall as he faces yet another sex-related allegation that he disputes.

Cain is starting to poll poorly nationwide and his campaign lacks the money and organization Romney has. But Cain isn’t dead yet. It’s dangerous to make those predictions in this race. Just ask Gingrich, who was once polling in the single digits and barely had a staff. At one debate more than a month ago, another campaign noticed that Gingrich and his wife were the only ones in his entourage.

“The biggest reason for Newt Gingrich’s rise is that he’s picked up the voters of Herman Cain and Rick Perry as their campaigns have fallen apart,” Tom Jensen, with Public Policy Polling, wrote in an analysis. “But these numbers make it pretty clear he’s doing more than that — some of Mitt Romney’s ‘25%’ is starting to fall off and move toward Newt as well.”

Romney has lost 13 percentage points since the last survey, conducted in September by Public Policy Polling, which typically surveys for Democrats. The two polls also indicate that Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum are stuck in single digits in Florida.

Florida is a closed primary state — only Republicans can vote for their nominee. The primary is Jan. 31. The state carries bragging rights, major media attention and a good load of delegates that can help the winner secure the party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Tampa.

In the general election, Florida is key for Republicans. Because Democrats usually win the big states of California and New York, Republicans need the Electoral College votes of Florida and strongly conservative Texas to have a shot at winning the White House.

The Public Policy Polling analysis shows Gingrich appeals to Tea Party conservatives, moderates — and seniors, the most crucial segment of the electorate in a state like Florida.

“Florida has one of the oldest Republican electorates in the country and with voters over 65, he’s at 54%,” Jensen wrote in an analysis. “That sort of support from seniors has become the rule for Newt in our polls.”

The poll, along with the InsiderAdvantage survey conducted for the Jacksonville Times Union on Tuesday, was part of a one-two punch for Romney, who was in the state Tuesday. Often, when a candidate appears in a state, he gets a little lift in the polls.

The poll results came as a big surprise to InsiderAdvantage pollster Matt Towery, who used to work for Gingrich years ago and has been critical of his former boss at times.

“I am totally shocked by these numbers,” Towery told the Times Union. “I have not seen a lead this large, this late in a Republican presidential primary season since I have been polling.”

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