Even as Mitt Romney struggles to get his opponents out of the GOP presidential contest, his image is drifting into some really dangerous territory going forward. A new ABC/WaPo poll has these striking findings about the Mittster’s current levels of popularity:

Mitt Romney trails Barack Obama by 19 points in basic popularity as the 2012 presidential contest inches closer to the main event, with a record 50 percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll now rating Romney unfavorably overall.

Thirty-four percent hold a favorable opinion of Romney, the lowest for any leading presidential candidate in ABC/Post polls in primary seasons since 1984. His unfavorable score is higher than Obama ever has received; it’s been exceeded by just one other Republican candidate this year, Newt Gingrich, and by only one top candidate in 28 years, Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Romney’s got three challenges: comparatively weak support in core Republican groups, lower popularity than Obama’s in the political center and more Americans — about one in six — who have yet to form an opinion of him one way or the other.

Obviously the “I don’t know” vote offers Mitt some opportunities for improvement (though it should be of great concern to his team that his unfavorables have begun to spike precisely as he is becoming better known). It’s also reasonably inevitable that core conservatives will gradually grow to like him, if love seems a bit of a stretch. But his standing among independents and moderates should set off some alarm bells in RomneyLand:

Obama is also up with independents, 50 percent of whom hold favorable views to 46 percent unfavorable.

But Romney lags among that key group, with 35 percent of independents viewing him favorably to 52 percent unfavorable.

Among voters who identify themselves as moderates, Obama holds a 61 percent to 34 percent positive edge, while Romney is seen unfavorably by more. Forty-eight percent of centrists have a negative view of Romney, to 35 percent favorable.

These are some pretty big, bad numbers for the guy embraced by GOP insiders as far and away the most electable of candidates. And it’s not helpful to him that the only way he can respond to one negative dynamic–the harsh criticism of his conservative primary rivals–is by taking positions unlikely to improve his standing with non-conservatves.

The real nightmare scenario for Republicans is that Mitt could turn out to be one of those candidates who just can’t get over the hump with multiple categories of voters: a candidate equivalent to the mythical brand of dog food containing the best ingredients, packaging and marketing that money can buy but turns out to be a failure because “dogs don’t like it.”

We’re hardly at the point when you can say that with any confidence right now. But a separate WaPo piece hilariously describing the rare breed of voters who are actually passionate about Mitt Romney shows that his negative charisma factor has to be taken seriously.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.