There might not be a state that betters symbolizes the fundamental shift that's occurred in the Republican Presidential race over the last few months than South Carolina. When PPP last polled there in early June, Mitt Romney led everyone in the field by at least 15 points. But now with Rick Perry's entry Romney has lost almost half of his support. That leaves Perry with a 20 point lead- he's at 36% to 16% for Romney, 13% for Michele Bachmann, 9% for Herman Cain, 8% for Newt Gingrich, 5% for Ron Paul, 4% for Rick Santorum, and 2% for Jon Huntsman.
Voters on the far right side of the Republican spectrum have been dying for a candidate they can call their own and Perry is filling that void. With folks describing themselves as 'very conservative,' which is the largest segment of the GOP electorate in South Carolina, Perry's at 44% to 14% for Bachmann, with Romney mired in single digits at 9%.
That furthest right group of voters has never been all that friendly to Romney though. What has to be a greater sign of concern for him is that with those labeling themselves as only 'somewhat conservative' he still trails Perry 37-19 with Bachmann at 11% and Cain at 10%. When Romney's primary threat was Bachmann he was still winning this group of voters. But Perry seems to be filling a void for voters looking for someone more conservative than Romney and more credible than Bachmann and if he can sustain his lead with that segment of voters he's going to be tough to topple.
Romney does continue to be the favorite of moderate Republicans, leading Perry 26-20. But since those folks only account for 16% of the overall GOP electorate having their support isn't going to take Romney very far.
Romney's certainly lost the most support because of Perry's entry into the race, dropping 14 points from 30% on our June poll to now 16%. But pretty much everyone else has lost ground too. Gingrich is down 7 points from 15% to 8%, Cain is down 6 points from 15% to 9%, and Paul is down 5 points from 10% to 5%. The only folks who have held steady are Bachmann at 13% and Huntsman at 2% on both of these polls.
Another potential candidate losing ground with the Perry surge is Sarah Palin. In June we found that she would be in a clear second place behind Romney at 18% if she decided to get into the field. Now she's in third place at only 10%, well behind the 36% Perry would get with her in the field and putting her in back of Romney's 13% as well. Palin would probably see some boost in her support if she actually formally entered the race but this continues a trend in our polling showing that as time passes support for her is getting smaller and smaller.
It's possible that by the time the Republican race gets to South Carolina there will have been some narrowing down of the field as candidates perform poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. So we looked at some scenarios addressing that. If it was a three person contest by that point Perry would hit 50% with Romney at 25% and Bachmann at 16%. If it was just Perry and Romney, Perry would lead 59-28. If it was Perry and Bachmann, Perry would lead 63-20. And if it was just Romney and Bachmann, Romney would lead 45-40. It's really not a good sign for Bachmann that in a state with a Republican electorate as conservative as South Carolina, voters would still prefer Romney.
So why is Perry doing so well? He's out there talking about a lot of things that Republican voters agree with. For instance he's been made fun of for his skepticism about global warming but only 25% of primary voters believe it exists to 61% who do not. He has a 42-11 lead over Romney with the climate skeptics compared to only a 24-22 one with the voters who believe in global warming. It's a similar story with evolution- only 32% of GOP voters believe in it while 57% do not. He's up 41-10 with the evolution skeptics compared to just 31-24 with the voters who believe in evolution. People can make fun of Perry all day long but he's in line with the Republican electorate on these issues and his willingness to voice his skepticism publicly seems to be helping him pick up some support.
Full results here