Romney leads in New Hampshire polling, as Gingrich surge draws attention

BOSTON, Massachusetts – Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich continues to build momentum in New Hampshire, gaining 6 points in a month, although former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney sustains a double-digit lead in the nation’s first primary. 

New Hampshire Republican Primary voters say that front-runner Mitt Romney is the candidate who will fix the economy, bring America together and is best suited to be president, according to a Suffolk University/7NEWS (WHDH-TV) poll of likely voters in New Hampshire’s GOP presidential primary.

The poll showed Mitt Romney leading with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Newt Gingrich (20 percent) and a surging Jon Huntsman (13 percent), who has overtaken U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas (8 percent) for third place.  The rest of the field was in low single digits, combining for about 10 percent. Eleven percent were still undecided.

Romney’s overall margin is coming down (+27 points mid-November versus +18 points today), and Gingrich’s emergence as the “anti-Romney” candidate, with strong poll showings in other early states, has given him a lift in New Hampshire.

Most notably, Romney’s lead dropped from +48 to +11 in Rockingham County, the second largest county in New Hampshire, located in the southeast along the Massachusetts border.  In addition, Romney’s lead fell from +34 to +12 among likely voters ages 55-74 years.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Huntsman, at 13 percent, is scoring his highest numbers in New Hampshire polling this year, largely due to the support of independents, who are eligible to vote in the New Hampshire primary.  Huntsman polled second among independents – besting Gingrich – and trailed Romney by just 11 percent.  In New Hampshire there are three registered independents for every two registered Republicans.

“If independents participate in a big way next January, Huntsman will benefit,” said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center.  “While other candidates have focused on the more traditional Republican voters, Huntsman has traction among independents, who could dominate the Republican Primary if mobilized.”

Of the two leaders – Romney and Gingrich – Romney was trusted more to fix the economy by 59 percent to 20 percent over Gingrich, while 62 percent of voters said Romney would be better at bringing America together than Gingrich (18 percent). Romney was considered to have the personality best suited to be president (70 percent) compared to Gingrich (16 percent).

“These numbers show the depth of Romney’s strength,” said Paleologos.  “We’ve seen that the economy has been the most important issue for the better part of two years, and New Hampshire voters clearly see Romney as the one to fix it.  The favorable view of Romney’s personality and ability to bring America together was seen even among Gingrich voters.”

Gingrich voters (43 percent) said that Romney had the personality best suited to be president, compared to 42 percent for Gingrich.

However, voters thought Gingrich would do a better job with foreign policy (46 percent – 34 percent) over Romney, even though more voters would prefer Romney in the White House if the United States were attacked (42 percent Romney – 37 percent Gingrich).

“Republicans see Gingrich as a better choice to set foreign policy by drawing lines in the sand, but they have less confidence that Gingrich will make the right decisions if the line is crossed,” said Paleologos. 

In an open-ended question on what word or phrase comes to mind when thinking about Newt Gingrich, 20 percent said “smart.” Additional descriptions included “untrustworthy,” 10 percent; “experienced,” 8 percent; “corrupt,” 5 percent; and “politician,” 5 percent.

The words describing Romney were “businessman,” 31 percent; “flip flops,” 11 percent; “honest,” 9 percent; and “smart,” 5 percent.

In another open-ended question, the Suffolk University survey asked New Hampshire Republican primary voters about major concerns for a Gingrich presidency.  Reasons for uneasiness included:

•   Baggage/his past – 16 percent

•   Not trustworthy – 13 percent

•   Lack of good judgment – 6 percent

•   No new ideas – 6 percent

•   Erratic – 5 percent

•   Polarizing – 4 percent

The major concerns for a Mitt Romney presidency differed markedly:

•   Flip-flops – 19 percent

•   Too moderate – 8 percent

•   Foreign policy – 6 percent

•   He might lose – 4 percent

 .   Health care – 3 percent
Methodology: The statewide survey of 400 likely voters in New Hampshire’s Republican Presidential Primary was conducted Dec. 10-13, 2011, using live telephone interviews of landline and cell phone users. The margin of error is +/-4.9 percent at a 95 percent level of confidence. Marginals and full cross-tabulation data are posted on the website of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.  
Suffolk University, located in downtown Boston, is characterized in its public relations materials as “a comprehensive global institution.”
While Romney is sustaining his lead in the lead-up to the January 10 primary in the Granite State, Gingrich has built a 41 percent to 23 percent edge over Romney among GOP voters in the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted nationwide. 
Romney narrowly trails President Barack Obama in the survey (45 percent to the Democratic incumbent’s 47 percent). The president has a 51 percent to 40 percent advantage over Gingrich in the Journal survey. 
In this week’s Capitol Report on News9, slated for Saturday (Dec. 16) broadcast on the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, CapitolBeatOK editor Patrick B. McGuigan looks at the March 6 Oklahoma Republican primary with reporter Amy Lester. With the way the campaign is unfolding, McGuigan has speculated the Sooner State’s primary voter could wind up closely divided among at least four hopefuls: Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry. 
NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.