Gingrich, Romney: The Electability Gap

As the first caucuses and primaries approach, Rasmussen has Newt Gingrich opening up a very significant lead over Mitt Romney (38-17 percent) among primary voters nationally. But at the same time, Republicans tend to feel that Romney is the more electable of the two.

Asked in the Fox News poll of mid-November who would have the best chance of beating Barack Obama, Republican primary voters said Romney had the best chance by 37-18 over Gingrich. In a national sample, the Fox News poll validates this perception. Running against Obama, Romney leads by two points (44-42) while Gingrich trails by six (46-40).

Primary voters cast their ballots with their heads and their hearts. Clearly, the hearts are tending toward Gingrich — for decades the stalwart warrior for conservative values — while their heads tend toward Romney, whom they see has having the best chance of winning.

Indeed, the very qualities that make him a hard sell in the primaries — his past support of abortion rights, gay civil unions, and Romneycare in Massachusetts — give Romney access to Independents in the general election. While Gingrich can be painted as a right-wing extremist by the Obama PR machine, Romney would defy such classification.

So which will prevail? Republican hearts or Republican heads, as the GOP voters choose?

A lot depends on Obama. The stronger he appears, the more Republicans may opt for Romney. The more Romney seems to be beatable by anyone, the more their hearts will lead them to Gingrich.

Part of Newt’s problem is that Mitt Romney is perceived as much more likeable by Republican primary voters. Asked who was the most likeable in the mid-November poll, 26 percent answered “Romney,” 25 percent answered “Herman Cain,” and only 9 percent opted for Gingrich. (Eight percent liked Rick Perry, and 6 percent liked Bachmann best.)

All these elements — likeability, electability and issue positioning — go into voting decisions, but the gaps among the candidates in these crucial measurements indicate that the results are far from set in stone and that great volatility is still very likely.

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