The numbers in the recent New York Times / CBS News Poll clearly indicate that Romney would be a stronger general election candidate than Gingrich.
1. Favorability Scores
Romney scores pretty well among Republican voters on the favorability scale, with favorable = 37% and unfavorable = 19%. Gingrich doesn’t score quite as well among Republicans as Romney, with favorable = 31% and unfavorable = 34%.
However, the real difference comes when you look at the favorability ratings among all registered voters. Romney scores 21% favorable and 35% unfavorable, while Gingrich scores 17% favorable and 49% unfavorable (i.e., Gingrich has a much higher unfavorability percentage and a somewhat lower favorability percentage).
The important point to note here is that, although Romney has a higher unfavorability score among the general electorate than he does among Republicans (not too surprising), Gingrich’s unfavorability scores far surpass Romney’s. In fact, Gingrich was the only Republican candidate with a higher unfavorability score than President Obama himself (who had 45% rate him as unfavorable).
2. Likelihood of Republicans to sit on the sidelines
14% of Republican primary voters said they would not support Gingrich if he becomes their party’s nominee, while only 10% of Republican primary voters said the same of Romney. The numbers are closer here, but Gingrich may do slightly worse than Romney within the Republican party in a general election.
3. Possible Obama-Republican match-ups
Among those surveyed, Romney was the only one of the Republican candidates who would break even with Obama in a head-to-head match (45% Obama vs. 45% Romney).
A Gingrich-Obama match would put Republicans at an 11% deficit (50% Obama vs. 39% Gingrich).
Among all of the Republican candidates, Romney fared best against Obama in the head-to-head contest.
4. Best chance of beating Obama
56% of Republican primary voters said Romney would have the best chance of beating Obama, while only 17% said Gingrich would have the best chance of beating Obama. These numbers tell the same story as Gingrich’s high unfavorability ratings among the general electorate (Republicans believe that Romney is stronger than Gingrich, while non-Republicans view Gingrich with much higher unfavorability than Romney).
5. Business vs. government experience
44% of Republican primary voters said they would prefer a candidate with mostly business experience, while only 12% said they would prefer a candidate with mostly government experience. If independent and swing voters have any of these same sentiments, Republicans may do well to put their money where their mouth is.
Since 56% of everyone surveyed said the economy is the most important issue in the campaign and 54% said they disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy, the Republican candidate who scores better on the favorability scale could make a very competitive bid for the White House.
Gingrich clearly succeeded at appealing to a plurality of the Republican party base in South Carolina, but Republicans should be very wary of a candidate who appears slightly more likely than Romney to leave Republicans at home if he becomes the party’s nominee and who appears far less likely than Romney to draw independent and cross-over voters into his camp.
With an unpopular president in the White House, one has to question whether Republicans would be wise to choose as their standard-bearer a man who has an even higher unfavorability rating than the current president.