Is the new Republican frontrunner Herman Cain? Maybe for this week anyway. PPP polled Republican primary voters in three pretty different states over the weekend- North Carolina, Nebraska, and West Virginia- and found Cain leading the way in each of them as Newt Gingrich surged, Mitt Romney stayed steady, and Rick Perry saw a collapse in his support.
North Carolina: Cain 27, Romney/Gingrich 17, Perry 15, Paul/Bachmann 6, Santorum/Huntsman 2
Nebraska: Cain 30, Gingrich 16, Romney 13, Bachmann/Perry 10, Paul 5, Santorum 4, Huntsman 2
West Virginia: Cain 24, Gingrich 18, Romney 16, Perry 15, Bachmann 8, Paul 6, Santorum 3, Huntsman 1
Cain rises to the top
The thing fueling Cain's lead in all of these states is strong support from the furthest right segment of the Republican electorate. Cain is at 35% with 'very conservative' voters and has a 14 point lead over Perry with them in North Carolina. In Nebraska he's at 36% with them, putting him up 22 points over Gingrich and Perry. And in West Virginia he gets 25% with them, giving him a 9 point edge on Gingrich and Perry.
This most conservative group of Republican voters has been shopping for a candidate all year. They've gone from Huckabee to Trump back to Huckabee to Bachmann to Perry and now to Cain. I would expect their support for Cain to be pretty temporary. One thing that's been very clear through all these twists and turns though- they're not going to support Romney.
Whether Cain's surge is fleeting or not this much is true- he's up 18 points compared to a month ago in North Carolina when he was at 9% and he's up 18 points in West Virginia as well where he had previously been at 6%.
Even more surprising than Cain's leading all three of these polls might be Gingrich's finishing second in each of them...and where his support is coming from. In both Nebraska (21-15 over Cain) and North Carolina (27-18 over Romney) he leads with moderates. Those voters have previously tended to give Romney first place status- it really says something about the state of the Republican field when Newt Gingrich becomes the choice for centrists.
Gingrich has better favorability numbers than front runners Romney and Perry in all three states. In North Carolina he's at +27 (58/31) to +19 for Romney (50/31) and +7 for Perry (44/37). In Nebraska he's at +17 (49/32) to +11 for Romney (45/34) and even for Perry (35/35). And in West Virginia he's at +24 (50/26) to +15 for Romney (42/27) and +13 for Perry (38/25).
This popularity for Gingrich is new found. His net favorability in NC is up 28 points from a month ago when he was actually on negative ground at 42/43. And he's up 19 points in West Virginia from 41/36 in September.
We haven't polled Nebraska since January when Perry wasn't really in the picture but we polled both North Carolina and West Virginia last month so it provides a point of easy comparison. Perry's support is down 20 points in North Carolina (from 35% to 15%) and 18 points in West Virginia (from 33% to 15%). He's had similarly catastrophic declines in his favorability numbers. He's dropped a net 37 points in North Carolina from +44 (61/17) to +7 (44/37). And he's declined 30 points in West Virginia from +43 (52/9) to +13 (38/25). Those are some pretty dramatic numbers.
While Cain and Gingrich have seen huge increases in their support and Perry a dramatic decline, Mitt Romney has stayed more or less in place. Last month in North Carolina he was in second place at 12%, now he's tied for second place at 17%. Last month in West Virginia he was in second place at 14%, now he's in third place at 16%. Going all the way back to January when we last polled Nebraska he was in 4th place at 15%, now he's in 3rd place at 13%. Romney's support has been pretty steady all year as folks have risen and fallen around him- the question is just whether that base of support is going to end up being enough to carry him to the nomination.
What about Christie?
We also tested iterations of these polls including Chris Christie- his standing in all three states is solid but not exactly spectacular. In North Carolina he was 2nd at 19%. In Nebraska he was 2nd at 19% as well. And in West Virginia he was 2nd at 17%. Given how desperate Republican voters seem to be for a new face, as evidenced by the constantly shifting poll numbers, I thought Christie would be in first place on these polls. You can argue that he and Cain have received the most 'new' media attention of any of these candidates in the last couple weeks and evidently Cain made a stronger impression on Republican primary voters than Christie. I'm not sure that would have boded particularly well for Christie's prospects further down the line.
The Republican race has always been pretty wide open, but never more so than it is now. The fact that Cain and Gingrich, pretty much given up for dead just a few weeks ago, could have this kind of poll surge is really indicative of how weak anyone's support is right now- very few Republican voters are strongly committed to a particular candidate and most of them can shift in a heart beat. I'll be pretty shocked if Cain is still leading our state polls a month from now but if there's any lesson to be learned from the GOP race at this point it's not to be surprised by anything. Two folks these polls are subtly good news for- Perry and Bachmann- because what they show is that just because you decline in the polls doesn't mean you can't come back. You can be the flavor of the week twice.
Full results here