Mitt Romney continues to hold a modest lead in South Carolina's Republican primary for President. He's at 29% to 24% for Newt Gingrich, 15% for Ron Paul, 14% for Rick Santorum, 6% for Rick Perry, 5% for Jon Huntsman, and 1% for Buddy Roemer.
Things haven't changed too much at the top in the last week. Romney is down 1 point from his pre-New Hampshire standing, while Gingrich has gained a point. There's more movement in the middle. Paul has gained 6 points to move into 3rd place, while Santorum has dropped by 5 points. Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman have each picked up a single point and remain in 5th and 6th place respectively.
Why is Romney winning South Carolina? Voters there are overwhelmingly focused on the economy this year and that's working to his advantage. 39% say jobs and the economy are their top issue, closely followed by 34% who pick government spending and reducing the debt. Asked who they trust most on economic issues 35% pick Romney to 25% for Gingrich, 16% for Paul, and 10 for Santorum. And despite the attacks on it this week Romney's business background is an asset for him. 58% have a favorable opinion of his record in business to just 27% with a negative view of it.
Another reason Romney's doing well and that Santorum's doing poorly is that social issues just aren't at the front of voters' minds this year...and Romney's neutralizing him on that front anyway. Just 4% of voters say that's their top concern this year. And when it comes to the candidate voters trust most on social issues Santorum only beats Romney 23-21 with Gingrich at 19% and Paul at 14%. Romney's also basically running even with evangelicals, getting 27% to 28% for Gingrich and 17% for Santorum. It's a pretty safe bet that he's going to win the state if he can maintain that standing. His religion continues not to be too much of an issue with only 23% of voters saying they'd be uncomfortable with a Mormon as President.
Three other reasons Romney continues to be the favorite in South Carolina:
-South Carolinians, more so than we've found in New Hampshire and Iowa, are concerned about electability. 50% say they're most concerned about a candidate's ability to beat Barack Obama, while 37% place a bigger priority on the candidate's positions on the issues. New Hampshire voters were more concerned about issue stances by a 55-37 margin on that question and Iowa voters were by a 54/31 spread. The more voters care about electability, the better Romney's chances are and he leads Gingrich 35-27 with those folks.
-There's a growing sense of inevitability that Romney will win the nomination. 46% think he'll get the nod to 16% for Gingrich with no one else even hitting double digits...voters generally like to pick a winner and there's a very strong feeling in South Carolina that will be Romney.
-South Carolina is likely to have an older electorate than both Iowa and New Hampshire did, and Romney's greatest strength continues to be with senior citizens. He's up 35-25 on Gingrich with them and we project that they will make up almost 30% of the vote.
For all that there are some signs that there could be trouble ahead for Romney:
-His net favorability is down 7 points in the last week from +31 (60/29) to +24 (57/33). Gingrich on the other hand has actually seen some improvement from +10 (49/39) to +14 (51/37).
-Overall 58% of primary voters don't want Romney to be the nominee, compared to only 34% who want him to be. If those folks coalesced behind Gingrich in any sort of meaningful way, Newt would be the favorite in the state. That doesn't seem likely to happen though. Folks who support Huntsman, Paul, Perry, Santorum, Roemer, or are undecided prefer Romney to Gingrich 42-33 when given a choice just between those two. They may not want Romney to be the nominee, but they don't necessarily want it to be Gingrich either.
-34% of voters say they'd be 'unwilling to vote for a candidate who had supported an individual mandate for health care at the state level.' That issue has the potential to be Romney's biggest albatross...but he's still polling at 16% with those voters! That's really a sign of his opponents' incompetence in not attacking him on his greatest vulnerability...but if they rectify that in the last 8 days it could eat into his support.
-Paul is following a formula similar to what helped him to strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire: doing well with non-Republicans and young people. Among actual Republicans in South Carolina he's at only 12%. But the state has an open primary and with Democrats and independents planning to vote in it he leads with 24% to 22% for Romney, 17% for Huntsman, and 11% for Gingrich. We're only projecting non-Republicans at about 20% of the electorate for South Carolina, but if Paul can bring that share up his prospects will improve.
Paul is also running near even with voters under 45, getting 25% to Romney's 27% with Gingrich at 20% and Santorum at 13%. He does quite poorly with voters over 45, getting just 10%, but if he's able to draw out a younger electorate than the state typically sees his momentum may continue.
-Jon Huntsman's image has seen some improvement over the last week with his favorability going from -13 (28/41) to -6 (34/40). But it's not translating to much increased support, as he's gone from only 4% to 5%. Rick Perry's support is similarly stagnant. His net favorability has increased by only a single point in the last week, and his vote share's just up from 5% to 6%. There's nothing to suggest either of these folks can do much to improve their standing in the final week.
-And for what it's worth, which may not be much, Tim Tebow's favorability with South Carolina Republican primary voters is 76/7. That makes him way more popular than any of the actual candidates- Romney tops that list at 57/33.
Full results here