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Santorum Surges From Behind — In Vermont

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You might think Vermont Republicans would be squarely of the Mitt Romney variety — fiscally conservative, socially moderate and extremely bland — and not at all interested in an uber-conservative culture warrior like Rick Santorum.

You would be wrong. At least according to a new poll.

Just in time for Super Tuesday, March 6 — when Vermont and nine other states will cast ballots in the presidential primaries — the new polling institute at Castleton State College has surveyed Vermonters about their attitudes on the presidential contest.

For its inaugural poll, Castleton asked 800 randomly-selected registered Vermont voters (Republicans Democrats and independents): If the Republican primary for president were held today, which of the following would you support for the Republican nomination...?

Romney won overall with 34 percent. No surprise there. But Santorum was a relatively close second, with 27 percent. Ron Paul finished third with 14 percent and Newt Gingrich got 10 percent.

Among survey-takers who identified as Republicans, Santorum is neck-and-sweater-vest-hugging-neck with Romney, at 35 percent each.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that in an August poll of Vermont voters by Public Policy Polling, Santorum wasn't even listed as an option. Dude was that irrelevant. Rick Perry wasn't even a candidate yet and he was included among the choices. Sarah Palin was listed too, even though she's never been a candidate.

Now it would appear that Santorumania has caught fire in our state. And yet with Romney's victories last night in Michigan and Arizona, the pundit class is questioning whether Santorum has what it takes after all. Maybe it's time for Newt comeback number three?

Here are some other highlights from the Castleton poll, which also surveyed Vermonters on repealing Citizens United, switching to a four-year term for governor and moving up Vermont's presidential primary date: 

  • Castleton poll director Rich Clark found that, "Romney’s support is firmer, with 55 percent of Santorum supporters saying that they are either somewhat or very likely to change their minds before election day. While Santorum’s support comes primarily from those who describe themselves as very conservative — 63 percent of those who describe themselves as “very conservative” say that they will vote for Santorum — Romney’s support is greatest among those who consider themselves moderates.  Keep in mind, only 7 percent of Vermont voters classify themselves as very conservative."
  • Among Vermont women, Romney and Santorum were virtually tied, 30-29. That might seem counterintuitive in light of Santorum's positions against abortion and birth control. But a Washington Post-ABC News poll actually found that Santorum's hard-line rhetoric was actually winning him women voters — at least Republican women.
  • Santorum also tied Romney 30-30 among Vermonters ages 18 to 34. Among voters ages 35 to 65, Romney has the advantage 35-25. But among voters 65 and older, Santorum again closes the gap, with Romney ahead only 36-29.
  • Apparently some Vermonters still haven't given up on Jon Huntsman, the hopelessly moderate former Utah governor who dropped out after the New Hampshire primary: 1 percent said he was their choice for president.
  • Regardless of who they support in the GOP contest, Vermont voters believe that Romney has best chance against Obama. Asked who could best take on the prez, voters answered: Romney 47 percent, Santorum 13 percent, with Paul and Gingrich each at 4 percent.
  • Clark also writes that, "For Vermont voters, economic issues matter more than social issues in deciding one’s vote for president in 2012. Thirty-four percent cite jobs and another 22 percent cite the budget deficit as what will matter most when voting for president in November 2012." Here's what the remainder said: 18 percent health care; 8 percent social security; 1 percent immigration; 2 percent abortion; and 7 percent other.
  • On the issue of Citizens United and super PAC spending, voters were asked whether they support a constitutional amendment that would limit how much wealthy individuals and interest groups could spend in campaigns. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has sponsored such an amendment. Vermonters overwhelmingly said they favor that, 76-15.
  • President Obama's job approval rating in Vermont is better than his national average. Among Vermonters polled, 56 percent said they approve, 33 percent disapprove and 11 percent said not sure.
  • On switching from two-year terms for governor to four-year terms — a change supported by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott this year — Vermonters prefer four-year terms by a margin of 58-25.
  • Pollsters asked voters whether they support moving up Vermont's presidential primary to give the state more influence in the nominating process (as if.) Only 29 percent said that was a good idea, while 43 percent opposed it and 28 percent said not sure.
  • Asked if they would still support moving the primary voting date up if it would cost more money, support dropped off by eight points to 21 percent.
  • Oh yeah, and unsurprisingly, if the election were held today, Obama would steamroll whoever the Republican nominee is in Vermont. In head-to-head match-ups in the poll, Obama leads Romney by 26 points, Santorum by 28, Paul by 30 and Gingrich by 42.

Castleton conducted the poll by phone from February 11 to February 22. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percent, though the pollsters caution, "the margin of error is larger for questions involving sub samples of repondents."

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