- (Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
A new Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday reveals that evangelicals and Tea Party supporters are breaking hard for Newt Gingrich in Florida, putting the former House Speaker within two points of front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
A press release describing the poll states Gingrich "leads among white evangelical Christians 43 - 30 percent and among those who consider themselves to be tea party supporters 43 - 28 percent." Each segment makes up roughly a third of primary voters, according to Quinnipiac pollsters, "although there is substantial overlap among those two groups."
Coming off the heels of his victory in the South Carolina GOP primary, rising evangelical and Tea Party support has allowed Gingrich to slash nearly 10 points off of Romney's lead with less than a week to go before Florida's GOP primary.
Overall, the poll shows Romney with 36 percent, Gingrich with 34 percent, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 13 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 10 percent. Neither Santorum nor Paul are spending much money in the Sunshine State, thus creating a head-to-head contest between Romney and Gingrich.
Only 16 days ago in a separate Quinnipiac University poll, Romney held a 36-25 percent lead over Gingrich.
Although only 7 percent of likely primary voters are undecided, there remain some startling statistics. A whopping 38 percent of those polled say they could change their minds before Election Day. That means the heavy advertising by the Romney campaign could sway voters. Gingrich, who loves the spotlight of the debate stage, could also change voters' minds if he continues to go after Romney on his past flip-flops and support of his Massachusetts health care plan.
"Florida is essentially a dead heat and a two-man race between Gov. Mitt Romney and Speaker Newt Gingrich entering the last week of the campaign," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a written statement.
"Gingrich's South Carolina victory clearly gives him a boost in Florida. The question is whether there is more of that to come, or whether any bump from a previous victory will dissipate as happened to Rick Santorum in New Hampshire after winning Iowa and Romney in South Carolina after taking New Hampshire," Brown added.
Women and social conservatives are still a wild card, and will play a significant role in the Florida primary, with Romney leading Gingrich 38 to 31 percent among females.
"The question is, what are evangelical women going to do in the next few primaries," asked Penny Nance, who heads Concerned Women for America. "I believe you're going to see the female voters look long and hard at the background and values of the candidates before casting their ballots which could lead to some surprises."
Romney has a higher "favorable" rating than Gingrich, outpolling him 71 to 61 percent. Paul has the highest "unfavorable" rating at 40 percent.
The poll was taken Jan. 19-23 and surveyed 601 likely Republican voters. The margin of error is +/- 4 percentage points, thus creating a statistical dead heat between Romney and Gingrich.
Florida's Republican primary will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 31.