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Romney Leads South Carolina Polls

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The first South Carolina polls in more than two weeks are out, and they show a lead for Mitt Romney but with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in a competitive position.

The polls have the potential to affect the candidates’ strategies in the closing days here in New Hampshire. With Mr. Romney all but assured of victory, the state increasingly looks as though it will be a staging ground for South Carolina, with Mr. Romney battling against expectations and the candidates to his right jockeying for position once the campaign begins its Southern leg.

The South Carolina surveys are unambiguously good news for Mr. Romney, who seems headed for a big victory here in New Hampshire, where most polls give him a lead of about 20 points and where our forecast model now assesses his chances of winning at about 98 percent.

A win in South Carolina would help to clarify that Mr. Romney has appeal even to the more conservative segments of the Republican base, making it difficult to envision a way for another candidate to catch up to him.

However, Mr. Romney’s lead in South Carolina is not particularly safe. Although it was as large as 18 percentage points in a CNN poll, it was just three points in a Rasmussen Reports poll, and the state will not vote for another 15 days.

It is also possible that either Mr. Santorum or Mr. Gingrich will emerge in a stronger position after New Hampshire votes on Tuesday. In some ways, they are competing as much with each other as against Mr. Romney.

“If we can climb into the double digits and finish ahead of one or two people, that’s a good thing for us,” Mr. Santorum said in an interview with FiveThirtyEight on Thursday when asked about his goals for New Hampshire. “If we can finish third, particularly if it’s ahead of Newt, that’s a big deal for us.”

But establishing oneself as the most viable conservative requires a careful balancing act in a moderate state like New Hampshire, as Mr. Santorum discovered on Thursday when facing a series of difficult questions from college students about his positions on same-sex marriage. Mr. Santorum told me that he was not deliberately modifying his message to appeal to New Hampshire voters. “I don’t think anybody that’s watched me today would say that I was modulating my message,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, seems more content to ensure that the pockets of support he has here in New Hampshire, like among elderly voters, remain steadfast and give him a strong turnout on Tuesday. At Mr. Gingrich’s town-hall-style meeting in rural Meridith, N.H., on Thursday, well more than half the audience were seniors, prompting a 22-year-old audience member to morbidly assert at one point that many of those in the room would be dead within the next decade.

But Mr. Gingrich was in spirited form, betraying no sign that he intended to exit the campaign anytime soon. He played to the room with homespun anecdotes on subjects from the energy crisis of the 1970s to his grandchildren.

And Mr. Gingrich tweaked Mr. Romney, the clear front-runner in the polls both here in New Hampshire and in the Republican nomination race over all. “It’s a joke for him to call himself a conservative,” Mr. Gingrich said of Mr. Romney after promising to refrain from personal attacks. “It’s a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit.”

Our forecasts of South Carolina, based on polls released on Friday by CNN, Rasmussen Reports and American Research Group, project Mr. Romney to win 33 percent of the vote in South Carolina, followed by Mr. Santorum at 25 percent and Mr. Gingrich at 21 percent.

Micah Cohen contributed reporting.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.