Republican John McCain won a sweeping victory on Super Tuesday even without winning the conservative base of his party, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought to a draw, virtually guaranteeing a long and sharply contested Democratic contest ahead.
The voting in the Republican primaries solidified McCain's position as the GOP front-runner and dramatically lengthened the odds against prime challenger Mitt Romney. At the same time, a surprisingly strong showing by Mike Huckabee in several Southern states underscored the continuing importance of evangelical Christians in the GOP.
Notably, though, McCain failed to make inroads among conservative Republicans at the heart of the Republican Party: More than six in 10 GOP primary voters said they were conservatives — and only 31 percent of them voted for McCain. Still, McCain's strong showing among independents and moderates, as well as his ability to attract crossover Democrats, could prove to be an advantage if he captures the nomination.
The Democratic voting, meanwhile, put into even sharper relief the divisions that have gripped the party since Obama established his credentials by winning Iowa. Clinton continued to do well among her core constituencies — women, Hispanics and the less affluent — while Obama consistently beat her among his core groups: blacks, the young and the more affluent, better educated voters.
For both sides, there was good news and bad. Clinton did well among Hispanics, particularly in vote-rich California, where she got 69 percent of the Hispanic vote, enough to counter Obama's overwhelming support among blacks and his win among white men there.
In California as nationally, Clinton won white women. But Obama won white men in five of the 16 states where exit polls were conducted, and split them with Clinton, 47 percent to 45 percent, in all primaries combined. Obama hadn't come out ahead among white men since Iowa and New Hampshire.
McCain was expected to do well, and he did — winning contests in nine states, including delegate-rich prizes such as California, New York, Illinois and his home state Arizona.
But Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, won five, all Southern states, all with remarkable levels of turnout among evangelical Christians. In Alabama, for example, evangelicals accounted for 77 percent of Republican voters; in Arkansas, 75 percent.
On the Democratic side, Clinton had led the national polls for more than a year, then had to push back hard as Obama gained momentum after the early primaries. Her efforts to get her core supporters to turnout made the difference in some key states, such as New Jersey, where she won women by 58 percent to 39 percent while running even with Obama among men.
Her lead was boosted by women's disproportionate turnout: Women made up 58 percent of the Democratic electorate, up from 52 percent in 1992 New Jersey Democratic primary, the last for which data are available.
Indeed, nationally, women accounted for 57 percent of all Democratic primary voters, favoring Clinton by 53 percent to 42 percent. Lower turnout on their part could have turned the tide for Obama in any number of states; he won men overall by 6 points, 50 percent to 44 percent.