- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2012

Newt Gingrich says he is the conservative choice in the 2012 presidential race, but five states into the campaign, Mitt Romney has won more self-identified conservative voters, according to an analysis by The Washington Times of entrance and exit polls.

Mr. Romney capped off that showing with a win in Nevada that included support from a majority of self-identified conservatives, a feat neither Mr. Gingrich nor the other two remaining candidates have been able to accomplish.

“He may be more conservative than Romney, but that does not mean that he is winning over more conservative voters,” said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. “The primary voters are not aligning themselves solely on the basis of ideology. They are looking as well to electability, character, leadership ability, among other factors. So being to the right of the front-runner is not enough to convince conservative voters to pick a Gingrich.”

The data out of Nevada added to the mounting evidence that shows Mr. Gingrich is struggling to convince conservative voters that he is more ideologically in sync with them than Mr. Romney and represents the party’s best chance of unseating President Obama in the general election.

Not adding up

More than 2.6 million voters have cast ballots or caucused in the Republican nomination battle, and about 68 percent of them said they were “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative,” according to an analysis by The Times of exit and entrance polling conducted for the major broadcast networks and the Associated Press.

Of those conservative voters, Mr. Romney has won the backing of almost 37 percent, while Mr. Gingrich has won almost 35 percent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has received about 17 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul of Texas received about 9 percent.

Among conservatives, Mr. Romney outperformed Mr. Gingrich in Iowa and in New Hampshire, while the Georgian briefly turned the tables in South Carolina. Since then, Mr. Romney regained the upper hand with back-to-back decisive victories in Florida and Nevada.

Exit polls in Nevada showing him winning just over 50 percent of voters who identified themselves as “very” or “somewhat” conservative and easily defeating Mr. Gingrich — 49 percent to 24 percent — among very conservative voters.

Those results signal trouble for Mr. Gingrich, who has argued in recent weeks that if conservatives stop splitting their votes between him and Mr. Santorum that “Gov. Romney at that point will start losing badly.”

But vote tallies from the opening contests suggest it may not be that simple.

To match Mr. Romney’s vote total to this point in the race, Mr. Gingrich would have needed to win roughly seven of every 10 Santorum supporters — a tall order for a group that includes many evangelical and faith-based voters who remain wary of Mr. Gingrich’s past marital infidelities.

The Santorum split

Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, predicted that if Mr. Santorum pulls out of the race, most of his supporters will split between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich — but some might not vote at all.

“The split isn’t 80-20 to Gingrich,” Mr. Sabato said. “The estimates vary, but Gingrich would be lucky to get even 60 percent of Santorum supporters. Newt might even get less than a majority. You can argue about the specific proportions, but there is no question about one thing: Chances for a conservative consolidation behind Gingrich are nil. It isn’t going to happen. Gingrich has too many critics on the right. Some regard him as an inconsistent conservative, while others have had conflicts with him or dislike other aspects of his past.”

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