Perceptions of electability, a fractured opposition and a strong showing in his weaker groups lifted Mitt Romney to victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary - but without settling how he may play in some of the more conservative climes ahead.
Romney scored creditably in some surprising groups. Exit poll results found that he ran competitively among independent, very conservative and evangelical voters in New Hampshire, three groups in which he fell well short in Iowa. He even won strong supporters of the tea party movement, a group he lost 2-1 to Rick Santorum a week ago.
Electability and broad acceptability greased the wheels. Asked which candidate would be most likely to defeat Barack Obama, 56 percent of New Hampshire voters picked Romney - and two-thirds of them voted for him. Six in 10 also said they'd be satisfied with Romney as the eventual nominee, 22 points more than the number who voted for him, and far more than said so about the other top candidates.
The battle behind Romney played out between Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, with Paul lifted, as in Iowa, by remarkably broad support among young voters: He won 47 percent of those under 30. Huntsman won among critics of the tea party movement, ran evenly with Romney among those seeking an experienced candidate and was competitive among voters who value compromise over ideological rigor. But a weaker ground game may have hobbled Huntsman; just four in 10 of his voters said they'd been contacted by his campaign, while 55 and 54 percent of Romney and Paul's supporters, respectively, said they'd heard from their chosen candidates' organizations.
Most fundamentally, the not-Romney vote in Iowa looked very different in New Hampshire, according to the exit poll, analyzed for ABC by Langer Research Associates. Romney won 33 percent of "very conservative" voters, to Santorum's 26 percent, and 30 percent of evangelicals, to Santorum's 23 percent and Paul's 22 percent - groups that in Iowa were both far larger and far more supportive of Santorum. And Romney essentially split self-identified independents with Paul, 29 to 32 percent, a group that went heavily to Paul in Iowa.
Independents, always unusually prevalent in New Hampshire, showed up in record numbers even for this state, comprising 47 percent of the GOP electorate. That denied Romney what would have been a smashing victory - he won self-identified Republicans by more than 3-1 over Paul and Santorum alike.
Notably, Romney won even among later deciders in the New Hampshire primary, meaning that, among voters who kept looking elsewhere up to the final day, a substantial number went for him nonetheless - again a sharp contrast to Iowa, where late breakers coalesced behind Santorum.
A major question is how New Hampshire translates. As the Iowa comparisons show, its Republican primary voters are different from many elsewhere. The exit poll confirms it: Six in 10 in New Hampshire defined themselves as moderate to liberal on social issues. Indeed, more generally, just 53 percent identified themselves as conservatives, compared with 83 percent in Iowa last week, and 69 percent in South Carolina in 2008.
It's also worth watching how Romney plays outside his comfort zone in terms of more economically vulnerable voters, especially given the controversy over job losses at companies taken over by Bain and Co., the investment firm he ran. He won strongly, with 47 percent of the vote, among voters in households with incomes over $100,000 a year, and also prevailed - by a less-wide margin - among those in the $50,000-$100,000 category. Among less well-off voters, though, Romney and Paul split the vote, with 31 percent apiece.
Similarly, Romney won big among voters who are getting ahead financially, with 43 percent of the vote, double that of his nearest competitor; and won, if less widely, among those who are holding steady - but among those who are losing ground financially, he roughly split the vote with Paul, 32 percent to 29 percent.
Among other results, issues were more at the fore than personal attributes compared with previous New Hampshire primaries - a development that benefited Paul. Fifty-six percent of voters said they were more concerned with a candidate's position on the issues than with his personal qualities such as leadership - 12 points more than said so in 2008. Among those voters, Paul and Romney essentially tied.
The difference for Romney was among the remainder, who gave personal qualities such as leadership higher priority than issues; in this group, one of Romney's best, 54 percent backed him - vs. just 16 percent for Huntsman, 11 percent for Paul. Notably, in this same group in 2008, just 28 percent supported Romney, who finished second that year to John McCain.
Romney lost ground vs. his 2008 results among very conservative voters - 33 percent in this group supported him this year, 43 percent in 2008 - but improved among somewhat conservative and moderate voters. Romney also did better among people who are very worried about the economy - a much larger group this year than in 2008 (69 percent, vs. 25 percent in 2008) - as well as among early deciders and higher-income voters.
First-time voters accounted for just 12 percent of the total in New Hampshire - compared with 38 percent in Iowa - but, as there, went heavily for Paul, 40 percent, vs. 23 percent for Romney and 20 percent for Huntsman. Among repeat voters, on the other hand, Romney won 43 percent, more than double Paul's share.
The extent to which results can change from state to state was shown especially clearly with Santorum, who nearly won Iowa, but finished with barely one in 10 votes this Tuesday. As noted, Santorum broadly won evangelicals, very conservatives and late deciders in Iowa; not in New Hampshire. In another example, nearly a quarter of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire alike cited "strong moral character" as the chief candidate attribute in their vote. In Iowa, Santorum won those voters by a decisive 17-point margin. In New Hampshire, by contrast, Paul won this group by roughly 20 points, over Santorum, Romney and Huntsman alike.
For all that, the economy was the key issue in New Hampshire, as it is nationally - and among the six in 10 voters who said it mattered most in their vote, 45 percent backed Romney, more than double Paul or Huntsman's performance. If Romney can repeat that performance, his future looks bright. The question: Whether he can do it in South Carolina, with its decidedly different political and demographic makeup - a state in which, in 2008, he finished fourth.
By Gary Langer, with Patrick Moynihan, Julie Phelan, Gregory Holyk and Damla Ergun.