In another sign of the front runner’s growing strength, Mitt Romney has taken the lead in South Carolina, according to a TIME/CNN/ORC poll released Friday.
The poll, which surveyed likely primary voters on Wednesday and Thursday, found Romney commanding 37% support, a 17-point gain since early December. He’s not the only one carrying momentum out of Iowa’s photo finish. Rick Santorum has surged 15 points, to 19%, picking up the largest chunk of Newt Gingrich’s shattered coalition. The former Speaker is still in the hunt with 18%, but that’s down from 43% in December.
Ron Paul’s share has doubled, to 12%, while Rick Perry’s has dwindled to a mere 5%.
The new data, which come a little more than two weeks before the Palmetto primary, confirm the broader contours of the GOP race. Romney’s solid position is strengthened by the splintering effect produced by his rivals — his 37% support is equal to that of Santorum’s and Gingrich’s combined. The largest remaining threat to Romney is a conservative bloc coalesced behind one candidate.
As of Friday, that simply isn’t happening. Romney is getting solid shares of born-again Christians (35%), Tea Party supporters (32%) and self-described conservatives (37%). This is, however, South Carolina, notoriously one of the nastiest political battlefields in the U.S., and the anonymous backstabbing, radio spots, church fliers and super-PAC attack ads have yet to saturate the state. And a 49% plurality of likely voters said they are still open to changing their minds. A New Hampshire surprise could tilt expectations. Santorum might just need more time. But for now, everything’s coming up Romney.
Methodology: The poll surveyed 1,519 adults, including 485 likely voters, by telephone on Jan. 4 and 5. The sample was weighted to reflect statewide Census figures for gender, race, age, education and region of the state, and it carries an error margin of ±4.5 points.