Santorum Dominates Texas Primary Poll

If the 2012 Texas Republican primary for president were held today, Rick Santorum would best his rivals by a wide margin, according to a University of Texas at Austin/Texas Tribune poll.

The Feb. 8-15 statewide poll of 800 registered Texas voters 371 of whom stated that they intended to vote in the Republican primary shows Santorum leading his rivals by nearly 30 percentage points.

When asked whom they would vote for if the 2012 Republican primary election for president were held today, 45 percent of respondents named Santorum. He was followed by Newt Gingrich at 18 percent, Mitt Romney at 16 percent and Ron Paul at 14 percent. Six percent said they would prefer another Republican candidate.

Santorum's support was slightly larger among likely voters, at 48 percent, with Gingrich at 17 percent, Romney at 16 percent and Paul at 14 percent. Likely voters are defined by the survey as those who indicate an interest in politics and vote in most elections (298 respondents in the survey sample said they intended to vote in the GOP primary and were also identified as likely voters).

"Interpreting the likely voter screen for primary elections can be tricky under normal circumstances," says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and a lecturer in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin, who oversees the survey.

"The lateness of the Texas primaries this year as a result of the redistricting mess makes it even more difficult. The incentive to vote looks very different on Super Tuesday than it does a month or possibly two months later," says Henson. "But however the results are sliced, the recent surge of support for Santorum in other parts of the country is evident in Texas, too."

Primary elections in Texas were originally planned to coincide with the "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 other states March 6, but litigation related to the redistricting process has resulted in a series of delays. The likely election date currently cited by most close observers is May 29, but that date has not been finalized

"It's not just that Santorum has a 27-point lead. It's that he dominates his rivals among those groups that define Republican primaries in Texas," says Daron Shaw, professor of Government at The University of Texas at Austin, who also oversees the survey. "Santorum has 65 percent support among the most conservative voters, 60 percent among tea party supporters and 51 percent among voters in rural parts of the state."

If the 2012 general election for U.S. president were held today and Santorum was the Republican nominee, 44 percent of the respondents said they would vote for him compared with 39 percent who would vote for President Barack Obama. Among likely voters, the margin is even wider, with Santorum leading 51 to 37 percent.

Other Republican candidates named in the poll led Obama by narrow margins, but among likely voters these margins increased significantly. For example, Romney is virtually tied with Obama, leading 40 to 39 percent among all respondents, but among likely voters he leads 49 to 36 percent.

The ability to defeat Obama was deemed the most important qualification of candidates in the Republican primary. Forty-five percent of respondents considered this important, with 25 percent naming "high standards and character" to be of greater importance.

"Among likely voters, Santorum and Romney both hold double-digit leads over President Obama. That's not surprising. What is less expected is that Romney and Santorum fare about the same in a match-up against Obama," says Shaw. "Our poll shows that electability is a major factor with Republican primary voters, but Romney's advantage on that count appears to be diminished."

Of the Republican candidates, former House Speaker Gingrich had the highest unfavorable ratings, with 35 percent indicating a "very unfavorable" opinion. Romney was dubbed "very unfavorable" by 25 percent and "somewhat unfavorable" by 23 percent. When asked if "most people you know would vote for a Mormon presidential candidate if they agreed with him or her on the issues," 21 percent said "no."

Obama continues to remain unpopular in Texas, with 55 percent disapproving of his performance as president (49 percent strongly disapproving). Congress fared even worse, with a 73 percent disapproval rating (47 percent strongly disapproving).

This is the latest in a series of online polls conducted by the Texas Politics Project and The Texas Tribune.

Comprehensive poll results, information about methodology and the survey dataset will be available at the Texas Politics Project website later this week. Additional poll results (PDF) will be released and available at the website throughout the week.