A new survey from Evolving Strategies, a Republican polling firm, has determined primary preferences among GOP voters are “unstable” and “susceptible to small changes in information.” Conducted between December 6 and 8, the survey found that Newt Gingrich is “highly vulnerable to attack” from opponents and that Mitt Romney’s negative aspects appear to be already “priced in” to how primary voters view him.
The survey, unique among firms examining the Republican primary, incorporates experimental data that examines the effect of campaign ads on support for candidates. The 672 Republican and Republican-leaning respondents were divided into three groups: a “Gingrich condition,” a “Romney condition,” and a control group. Those in the Gingrich condition watched, in random order, a positive and negative campaign ad each about Gingrich and Rick Perry; the Romney condition similarly watched four ads, positive and negative both for Romney and Perry. The control group watched a non-political advertisement.
All three groups then took the same survey, which included a question asking them to rank each candidate in order of choice for the Republican nomination. The results showed Gingrich as the first-choice candidate for 31.55 percent of all respondents. Romney was the first choice for 21.73 percent, while the remaining 5 candidates all polled in the single digits. But the results among the three groups show a more complex picture of how voters react to new information.
“Instead of asking voters if they like or don't like some message, we figure out how all these messages actually impact voter behavior,” says Sabrina Schaeffer, the co-founder of Evolving Strategies.
Perhaps most striking among the survey’s findings are the fact that only 26 percent of those who saw the Gingrich ads (the “Gingrich condition” group) were willing to list the former House speaker as their first choice, compared to 42 percent among those who did not watch the ads and who chose Gingrich as their favorite candidate. Compared to the preferences of the control group, Gingrich support falls 37 percent with those who saw his ads. That suggests primary voters exposed to negative information about Gingrich are more likely to be swayed by that information.
Contrast that to the findings on Romney. Support for Romney increased 39 percent from the control group to the “Gingrich condition” group, meaning those who saw the ads about Gingrich were swayed positively toward Romney by those ads. Also, the negative ad about Romney had no discernible negative effect on his support. It’s likely, the firm concludes, that Republican primary voters may have already calculated the negative aspects of Romney into their opinions of the race.
What these findings also suggest, Evolving Strategies notes, is that the cash-strapped Gingrich campaign could be disadvantaged against Romney’s financial juggernaut in the long term. Gingrich is likely unable to afford enough positive advertisement to counteract the much more effective negative advertisement against him from wealthier campaigns. Romney, meanwhile, will be able to buy himself positive advertisements without worrying too much about less effective negative advertisement against him.
If primary race is a long slog, campaign ads may become more important than the retail politicking of the early primary states. The impact of the national televised debates notwithstanding, Romney would appear to have the upper hand against Gingrich when it comes to competing in the world of television ads. A knockdown, drag-out war that goes well into the summer could be just what the Romney campaign is hoping for.