Mitt Romney's in a strong position to win this weekend in South Carolina, and he's in an even stronger position to follow it up with a big win in Florida. Our first Sunshine State poll of 2012 finds Romney with a 15 point lead at 41% to Newt Gingrich's 26% with Rick Santorum at 11%, Ron Paul at 10%, Rick Perry at 4%, and Buddy Roemer at 1% rounding out the field.
Romney's lead expands further when you look only at voters whose minds are completely made up, to 48-27 over Gingrich. 71% of his voters say they'll definitely cast their ballot for him, compared to only 61% who say the same for Gingrich.
There's been an enormous shift in Florida since PPP last polled the state right after Thanksgiving. Romney's gained 24 points, going from 17% to 41%. Meanwhile Gingrich has dropped 21 points, going from 47% to 26%.
Romney has extremely impressive favorability numbers in the state with 68% of Republicans seeing him positively to only 24% with a negative opinion. Those are better numbers than we've found for him in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina polling. It's not just a splintered conservative vote that has him ahead in Florida. And even if most of his opponents were to drop out before the primary, Romney would still be in good shape. In hypothetical head to head match ups he leads Gingrich 50-38, Santorum 59-29, Perry 69-21, and Paul 76-17.
Two big things are working to Romney's advantage in Florida and elsewhere: voters are focused on the economy, and they're focused on beating Barack Obama. 69% of Republicans in Florida list either government spending or jobs and the economy as their top issue. Social issues and foreign policy are really on the back burner this year. Romney leads Gingrich 42-25 as the candidate voters most trust on the economy. And as much as he's been attacked for his business record it's proving to be an undeniable asset with primary voters- 70% have a favorable opinion of it to only 18% with a negative one.
Romney has also done a good job of, at worst, neutralizing social conservatives. He's leading Gingrich 39-30 with Santorum at 15% among evangelicals in Florida. When it comes to the candidate voters 'trust most on social issues like abortion and gay marriage' he actually leads Santorum 30-21 with Gingrich at 19%. Romney's even narrowly winning Tea Party voters with 33% to 31% for Gingrich, 16% for Santorum, and 10% for Paul.
-When it comes to endorsements in Florida Rubio>Bush>Tebow>Scott. 40% would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Rubio compared to 30% for Bush, 16% for Tebow, and 12% for Scott. It says a lot about Rubio's rising stardom that his nod already carries more weight with Florida Republicans than Bush's. Meanwhile it's just another sign of Scott's unpopularity that only 12% of GOP voters would consider his endorsement a positive, while 41% would be less inclined to support a candidate 'graced' with it.
-Gingrich might have done a lot better in a Presidential run 10 years ago, in the immediate shadow of 9/11, when national security and foreign policy were much more in the front of voters' minds. By a 42-28 margin Florida Republicans trust him more than Romney on foreign policy. We found a similar story in South Carolina last week, where Gingrich led Romney 41/22 on that count. Unfortunately for him it's just not at the top of the agenda this year.
-People like to vote for a winner and there's a growing sense of inevitability among Florida Republicans that Romney will be nominated. 52% think he will end up as the GOP candidate compared to 16% for Gingrich with no one else in double digits. That fact could help reinforce Romney's front runner status in the state, especially if he wins South Carolina on Saturday.
-Finally if Tim Tebow's flamed out of the NFL by 2014 he may have good job prospects in Florida. His favorability with Republicans there is 73/6 and he trails Rick Scott only 47-26 in a hypothetical primary contest...not a bad place to start for a 24 year old football player.
Full results here