Heading into Tuesday’s GOP primary debate in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney still holds a commanding lead in the first in the nation primary state, but rising star Herman Cain has slid into second place, according to a new poll.
The poll, conducted by the Institutes of Politics at Saint Anselm College and Harvard University, shows that Romney would get 38 percent of the vote from likely Republican primary voters if the primary were held today.
Herman Cain is in second place, taking 20 percent of the vote, followed by Ron Paul with 13 percent of the vote. All other candidates get 5 percent or less, including Rick Perry at 4 percent.
New Hampshire political consultant Mike Dennehy said the results reflect what he is “seeing and hearing on the ground.”
“There is obvious excitement on the ground for Romney and Cain. Paul’s supporters express enthusiasm at events all over the state. The other candidates are struggling to get momentum. Perry has a strong organization and it seems it’s just a matter of time before he picks up,” Dennehy said.
Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, agreed, calling Perry’s high unfavorables — 41 percent, compared to 43 percent favorable — striking. Nonetheless, he noted that Perry has the “financial resources to maybe overcome that.”
Romney is both very well known and very popular in the state. Ninety-six percent of likely primary voters know who he is, and 75 percent say they have a favorable opinion of him, while just 21 percent say they have an unfavorable opinion of the former Massachusetts governor. He is the overwhelming favorite on specific issues, and voters see him as the candidate most likely to get things done in Washington, create jobs, defeat President Barack Obama in a general election, deal with the national debt and social security solvency, keep the country safe from terrorists, and deal with immigration.
In a general election, 72 percent of voters say Romney would beat President Obama. Voters are far less confident in Rick Perry’s viability in a general election, with 47 percent saying he would beat the president, and 43 percent saying Obama would win.
“These results are a testament to the kind of campaign Gov. Romney has run in New Hampshire,” said New Hampshire-based political consultant Patrick Hynes. “He’s been accessible and responsive to voters throughout a series of unheralded town hall meetings. There’s still a lot of campaign left, but Gov. Romney’s strategy is paying dividends.”
“The ‘not Romney’ hot potato has passed from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry. None of them has been able to capitalize on their moment,” Hynes continued. “This poll indicates it’s Herman Cain’s turn. He really needs to build his organization on the ground to convert these terrific numbers into a winning strategy.”
Grayson noted that while Romney has wide ranging support, voters are “not ready to commit.” Of those who say they would vote for the former Massachusetts governor, just 10 percent say they will definitely vote for him, while 28 percent say they’ll only probably vote for him.
“A hypothetical candidate could still do well here,” Grayson said, noting that there is something of an “anybody-but-Romney primary going on,” with voters latching on to a new favorite candidate for that role every month or so. At the moment, that candidate is Herman Cain, and the question now, says Grayson, is “can he hold onto it?”
Cain has spent little time in New Hampshire, but his rise in the polls coincides with his rise in the national polls, where he now ranks near the top of the field. This is the second New Hampshire poll to find Cain in second — a WMUR Granite State poll released Friday had him in second place with 12 percent of the vote, 25 points behind Romney.
The Institutes of Politics at Saint Anselm College and Harvard University poll is based on telephone interviews with 648 likely Republican primary voters from October 2 to October 6. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.