ABC News’ Gary Langer, of Langer Research Associates, reports:
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 indicate that he ran competitively among independent, very conservative and evangelical voters, three groups in which he fell well short in Iowa. And they suggested that 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, a majority of New Hampshire voters picked Romney — and six in 10 of them voted for him. As many also said they’d be satisfied with Romney as the eventual nominee, 20 points more than the number who actually 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, while Huntsman ran competitively among moderates, Tea Party critics and voters who value compromise over ideological rigor, as well as those seeking an experienced candidate. A weaker ground game, though, may have hobbled Huntsman; fewer than half of his voters said they’d gotten a call from his campaign, vs. majorities of Romney and Paul supporters — helping Paul, perhaps, to his second-place finish.
Fundamentally, though, the not-Romney vote fragmented in New Hampshire. He split “very conservative” and evangelical voters with Rick Santorum — groups that in Iowa were far larger and far more supportive of Santorum. And he split independents with Paul, a group that went heavily to Paul in Iowa. Independents showed up in perhaps record numbers, denying Romney what would have been a smashing victory – he won self-identified Republicans by 3-1 over Paul and Santorum alike.
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 defined themselves as moderate to liberal on social issues.
It’s also worth watching Romney plays outside his comfort zone in terms of more economically vulnerable voters, especially given the Bain/jobs controversy. He won strongly among voters in households with incomes over $100,000 a year, and also prevailed — if by a less-wide margin – among those in the $50,00-$100,000 category. Among less well-off voters, though, the vote was more scattered.
Similarly, Romney won big among voters who are getting ahead financially; less big among those who are holding steady – but, among those who are losing ground financially, split the vote with Paul.
Notably, though Romney remained competitive 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 deciders coalesced behind Santorum. The question: Where they go in South Carolina, with its decidedly different political and demographic makeup.