A week and a half ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s victory in the Republican primary was near inevitable, likely to be locked up at the South Carolina primary. The mood of political reporters everywhere was that primary season would soon end, and the campaign trail would be merely a fond memory.
But then everything changed.
Heading into South Carolina, national polls had Romney with a 20- to 25-point lead over his nearest competitor. Gallup, for instance, had Romney with 37 percent of the vote, Gingrich and Santorum tied for 14 percent, Paul at 12 percent and Rick Perry at 5 percent.
Romney, it appeared, had shattered his ceiling in the polls, and it looked like it was all over.
But within a week, Romney’s lead had started to disintegrate. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted Jan. 11 through Jan. 16 (the day after the New Hampshire primary through that Sunday), had him back down to 28 percent, with a mere 7 point lead over Gingrich. Santorum and Paul had faded to 15 and 16 percent respectively, and Perry was holding in the single digits.
It only got worse. After a debate on January 16 in Myrtle Beach proved disastrous for Romney — when he tripped up answering the question of when and if he would release his tax returns — and spectacular for Gingrich, Romney slid another few points. A Rasmussen poll from Tuesday, Jan. 17 showed his lead narrowed to three percent nationally, taking 30 percent to Gingrich’s 27 percent.
The latest Gallup Tracking poll, released on Monday, now has Romney merely one point ahead of Gingrich, 29 percent to 28 percent. That poll includes samples from before Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina Saturday, meaning that things could get even worse for Romney in the aftermath.
All told, Romney’s lead has diminished by 24 points, looking at his largest lead — 25 percentage points — in a FOX News poll from the days following the New Hampshire primary, to his most recent numbers, which show him with just a 1 percent lead in the Gallup poll.
That’s not to say that Romney is bleeding support. In fact, his numbers have stayed relatively constant since December. The day after he “won” the Iowa caucuses — a victory that he has since been stripped of — Romney had 29 percent nationally, according to a Rasmussen poll. In Gallup’s tracking poll on Monday, that number is identical: Romney gets 29 percent of the vote. At his peak, in the FOX News poll, Romney reached 40 percent, but for the most part, he has stayed constant at around 30 percent.
The change comes instead from Newt Gingrich’s volatile poll numbers. In the FOX News poll, Gingrich was at a mere 14 percent, but he has steadily climbed, and the latest Gallup poll has him at 28 percent, having doubled his share of the vote.
Gingrich has seen poll numbers like this before: Back in early December, before Romney and his Super PAC clobbered him with attack ads in Iowa. It remains to be seen if Gingrich can sustain the surge this time around.