Does the Newt Gingrich polling surge mean that Mitt Romney is finished, or at least in serious trouble? No — in fact, Romney remains a heavy favorite in the race, regardless of what the current headlines lifted from those surveys might say.
Gingrich has jumped out in front, sometimes dramatically so, in several polls (see here and here for the latest Florida numbers). One theory of why Romney has fallen behind Gingrich is an oft-repeated myth that there is a “low ceiling” on Romney’s support, with Romney unable to rise above 25% or so.
But it’s just a myth. On the voter level, there is no appetite for a Stop Romney campaign. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll confirms something you don’t hear much: Republicans and conservatives may not have settled on Mitt Romney as their nominee, but they really do like him. There is no ceiling. That suggests he still has an excellent chance to eventually expand his support well beyond his current numbers.
As the Post polling team reports, solid majorities of Romney’s target audience have a “favorable” view of him, whether it’s Republicans (56% favorable), conservative Republicans (63%), or even those who think of themselves as very conservative (57%). What’s striking is that Romney’s unfavorable and even his strong unfavorable numbers among these groups are simply not at levels which indicate that he’ll have problems with them. Among all Republicans, 29% give him an unfavorable rating and only 8% are strongly unfavorable, with similar numbers for conservative Republicans (25%/7%) and very conservative voters (28%/10%). Those aren’t great, but they do mean that at least three-quarters of GOP primary voters could support him.
One could make an interesting comparison between conservative opposition to Romney and liberal disappointment with Barack Obama. In both cases, there’s clearly something there — but it’s mostly an elite pre-occupation that doesn’t seem to really touch ordinary voters.
I do think that Romney will, if he wins the nomination, belong to the group of candidates such as Bob Dole, John McCain, or John Kerry, candidates who are liked but inspire little euphoria. And yet Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and, perhaps, George W. Bush were probably in that group too, and they did just fine in November. Meanwhile, in the short term, there’s just no evidence for the idea that 25% or 30% is some sort of hard cap on Romney’s support. And that means he’s still the favorite for the nomination, Newt surge or no Newt surge.