Local Politics

WRAL News poll: Santorum leads GOP field in NC

Posted March 20, 2012 5:06 p.m. EDT
Updated March 21, 2012 8:04 p.m. EDT

— With a month until early voting begins in North Carolina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is leading the field in the state's Republican presidential primary, according to a new WRAL News poll.

SurveyUSA polled 403 likely Republican voters between last Friday and Tuesday and found that Santorum leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 34 to 26 percent.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 18 percent support in the poll, while Congressman Ron Paul of Texas had 10 percent. Eleven percent of GOP voters in the state remain undecided.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Santorum has a sizable lead among female voters, 38 to 24 percent over Romney, while his lead among male voters is within the margin of error, at 31 to 28 percent, according to the poll.

David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh, said he was surprised by Santorum's strong showing with women, noting he has been out of favor among independent female voters in other states.

Romney's strength is among both young and older voters, leading Santorum 28 to 22 percent among voters 34 and younger and 37 to 31 percent among voters 65 and older, according to the poll. Santorum leads handily among others, however, grabbing 41 percent of support among voters aged 35 to 49 and 39 percent among those 50 to 64.

Santorum has built his campaign on being a conservative alternative to both Romney and President Barack Obama, so it's not surprising that he leads Romney 44 to 17 percent among North Carolina voters who identify themselves as "very conservative." Gingrich finished second among that group with 23 percent support.

Among voters who identify themselves simply as "conservative," however, the race is a virtual dead heat, with Santorum holding a 32 to 31 percent lead over Romney. Romney leads 34 to 27 percent among moderate Republican voters, according to the poll.

McLennan noted that "very conservative" voters accounted for only a third of those polled, and he said the tight race with Romney among other voters doesn't bode well for Santorum, especially once groups affiliated with Romney start targeting the former senator in negative ads.

Tea party members are fairly evenly divided, with Romney leading both Santorum and Gingrich by 28 to 24 percent, with Paul pulling in 22 percent support.

Santorum holds strong leads in metro areas statewide, with at least 35 percent support in the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte to no more than 27 percent in those areas for Romney. In rural areas, Romney has 31 percent support, with Santorum and Gingrich in a virtual dead heat at 23 and 22 percent, respectively.

North Carolina will hold its primary May 8. Early voting starts April 19.