Politics

Romney Has Slim Lead in New Hampshire

by Frank Newport

McCain second; Huckabee tied for third

PRINCETON, NJ -- A new USA Today/Gallup poll of New Hampshire voters who are likely to vote in the Jan. 8 Republican primary shows that Mitt Romney -- former governor of next-door state Massachusetts -- has a narrow seven-point lead over Arizona Sen. John McCain. Despite the intense media focus on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's rise to prominence in Iowa, he is low on the list in New Hampshire, essentially tied with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Rep. Ron Paul for third place. Republicans in New Hampshire say illegal immigration and the economy are the top issues they will be most likely to take into account in their vote, although at the same time, a slight majority of Republicans say the leadership skills and vision of the candidates are more important than their stances on the issues.

Where the GOP Race Stands in New Hampshire

The USA Today/Gallup poll -- conducted Dec. 17-19 -- isolated a sample of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters and assessed the candidate for whom they said they would be most likely to vote.

Romney's lead is not surprising. He has been ahead in various polls of New Hampshire Republicans all year long, a position most often ascribed to the visibility he gained as governor of neighboring state Massachusetts. McCain, who won the 2000 New Hampshire primary and is hoping to repeat that success in 2008 to propel his campaign, is in second place.

Huckabee has gained widespread visibility in recent weeks as a result of his strong showing in polls of Iowa caucus-goers and gains in national polls. Still, at the moment, he comes in essentially tied with Giuliani and Paul behind the two leaders. Huckabee only recently began to campaign in New Hampshire, and Giuliani has spent little time there as he sets his sights on the large states voting on Feb. 5.

A little more than half of GOP likely voters in New Hampshire say they are certain to vote for their first choice, leaving quite a bit of room for change between now and the Jan. 8 primary.

The poll asked Republican voters about their second choice, and the results show than Huckabee does not do any better as second choice than he did as first choice. Romney ends up with 53% of the combined first- and second-choice votes, McCain gets 44%, Giuliani gets 36%, and Huckabee trails with just 20%.

The sequence of events next month has the Iowa caucuses taking place on Jan. 3, followed by the New Hampshire primary just five days later. If Huckabee indeed does have a strong showing in Iowa, it is possible that the resulting publicity could alter the votes of New Hampshire Republicans. But the second-choice data reviewed here suggests that Huckabee could have a difficult time pulling out a strong showing in New Hampshire regardless of his performance in Iowa.

Important Issues to Republican Voters

The poll asked Republicans to choose among a list of six issues as the most important to their vote.

No single issue out of these six dominates the responses of Republicans, although illegal immigration and economic conditions appear to be somewhat more important than the others. Importantly, Iraq is fairly low on the list, in sharp contrast to the responses of New Hampshire Democrats, for whom Iraq is No. 1.

It should be noted, however, that when asked to say which will be most important to their vote -- issues or "leadership skills and vision" -- Republicans come down on the side of the latter, perhaps suggesting that the various issues the candidates talk about will be less important in the final analysis than the overall impression they make on the minds of voters.

Candidate Perceptions

Republicans were asked which of the major candidates best fits each of six descriptive phrases.

Although Romney leads the overall balloting among Republicans in New Hampshire, he does not lead on all of these dimensions. He is more likely than any other candidate to be chosen in terms of having new ideas, having the best chance of beating the Democrat, and sharing "your values."

McCain, on the other hand, is most likely to be seen as the candidate who can get things done in Washington, standing up for what he believes in, and being in touch with average Americans.

Bottom Line

Romney maintains a small lead among likely Republican voters in New Hampshire, with McCain close behind in second place. Huckabee, the recipient of the most publicity of any GOP candidate in recent weeks, is tied for third with Giuliani and Paul. The degree to which the results of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses will affect these candidate standings in the minds of New Hampshire voters is unknown at this point. Although New Hampshire Republican voters indicate that illegal immigration and the economy are the top issues they will take into account in voting, a majority say the leadership and vision of the candidates will be more important to them than the candidates' positions on the issues.

Survey Methods

These results are based on interviews conducted Dec. 17-19, 2007, with 477 New Hampshire residents deemed most likely to vote in the Republican primary. For this sample, the maximum margin of error attributable to sampling is ±5 percentage points.

The "likely voter" model assumes a turnout rate of 60% of those who say they plan to vote in the Republican presidential primary, approximately 25% of New Hampshire adults. The likely voter results are weighted to match this assumption (weighted sample size is 467).

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