A split decision between Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich among very conservative voters in Alabama gave Mitt Romney room to make the Republican presidential primary a competitive one there, while a similar division among evangelical voters had the same effect in Mississippi.
With no projection by ABC News at poll closing time in either state, exit polls results in Alabama find that 41 percent of very conservative voters favored Santorum, 35 percent Gingrich - dividing nearly eight in 10 of this group between them. Romney lagged with a mere 19 percent of very conservatives, a group in which he's struggled this year. But Santorum and Gingrich split that vote evenly enough to let Romney make up some ground.
Half of voters in Alabama and Mississippi alike say Romney is "not conservative enough." Their vote preferences draw a good picture of the way the not-Romney vote is fracturing. In Alabama, those who see Romney as insufficiently conservative split 44-37 percent between Santorum and Gingrich. In Mississippi it's even closer - 39-39 percent. If folks unimpressed with Romney's conservative credentials had one place to go, not two, we'd likely be looking at a romp.
In Mississippi the results among evangelicals were even more striking - 32 percent in this group voted for Romney, better than his vote from evangelicals in other southern states, while Santorum and Gingrich divided the rest.
In both states Gingrich did less well with women voters than with men. In Alabama, Santorum's results were better among women; in Mississippi, women divided between Santorum and Romney. The thrice-married Gingrich looked especially weak among married women in both states.
Forty-five percent of Alabama voters said it mattered a great deal to them to support a candidate who shares their religious beliefs; this group went overwhelmingly to Santorum, giving him nearly 50 percent of their votes. In Mississippi, the group was equally large, but Santorum won them a bit less resoundingly, with 40 percent support.
A vast 83 percent of GOP voters in Mississippi identified themselves as evangelicals, the most in any state this cycle (or in 2008); 32 percent of them voted for Romney, about his average among evangelicals in all primaries to date, although more than in southern states. As is customary for Romney, he did well with the sizable number of voters in both states who were focused chiefly on the candidate who's best able to win in November.
Santorum came back with very broad support among voters looking for the "true conservative" and for "strong moral character" in a candidate, the latter an especially weak group for Gingrich. But Gingrich, in turn, won voters in both states focused on the candidate with the best experience to serve as president. Experience as in previous states, was an especially weak attribute for Santorum.
Gingrich ran competitively in both states among voters who selected the federal budget deficit as the most important issue in their vote. That's the best he's done among deficit voters save for his home state of Georgia and neighboring South Carolina.
But more voters cited the economy as the top issue. And among economy voters, as in most previous states, Romney prevailed in Alabama and Mississippi alike.
Two other results marked the high levels of discontent among voters in both states: In Alabama, 94 percent described themselves as worried about the direction of the nation's economy, including 80 percent who were very worried. And in Mississippi, 86 percent said they were dissatisfied, or downright angry, with the way the federal government is working.
Core conservatives including potentially record numbers of evangelicals turned out to vote in today's southern GOP primaries. But their ideological and religious sentiments were combined with practical concerns about electability in November.
Preliminary exit poll results indicate that evangelicals account for eight in 10 voters in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries alike; the high to date this year was 76 percent in Tennessee.
Roughly three-quarters in both states also say it matters that a candidate shares their religious beliefs, among the most this year; more than four in 10 say it matters "a great deal."
Seven in 10 are conservatives; four in 10, "very conservative" - and more than half of voters in both states describe Mitt Romney as not "conservative enough." That leaves just about a quarter in Alabama and a third in Mississippi who describe Romney as "about right" ideologically, many fewer than the number who say so about Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich alike. Perhaps partly as a result, Romney trails both Santorum and Gingrich in Alabama, and Gingrich in Mississippi, in being seen as the candidate who best understands the problems of average Americans.
Nonetheless, Romney leads his opponents in perceptions of electability - the sense he's best able to defeat Barack Obama in November - and that's the most-desired candidate attribute among voters in both states. Romney pushes back against his ideological and religion-based deficits in another way as well: Voters in both states cite the economy as the top issue in their vote choice, an area in which Romney has done consistently well this cycle.
ELECTABILITY - While the religious and ideological profiles of GOP voters today may help Santorum and Gingrich's prospects, they also face challenges. In both states about half name Romney as the candidate most likely win in November. That leaves fewer than a quarter in both states who pick either Santorum or Gingrich on electability, which may be significant as about four in 10 voters call electability the most important candidate attribute in their vote.
EMPATHY - At the same time, as in Ohio, Tennessee and Vermont last week, few voters in either state tonight think Romney best understands the problems of average Americans (three in 10 in Mississippi, two in 10 in Alabama). Gingrich beats Romney on this attribute in Mississippi, as do both he and Santorum in Alabama which is better for Gingrich than in previous states where the question was asked (Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont and Florida).
ACCEPTABLITY - In Mississippi, roughly two-thirds say they'd be satisfied with Gingrich and Santorum alike as the nominee. Despite his shortcomings on empathy and ideology, about six in 10 say the same about Romney, as well. (The question wasn't asked in Alabama.) In Alabama, meanwhile, nine in 10 say they'd definitely (80 percent) or probably (10 percent) support the GOP nominee, whoever that is. (This question wasn't asked in Mississippi).
ECONOMY - As has been typical this year, most voters pick the economy as the most important issue in their vote - nearly six in 10 in Alabama and more than half in Mississippi. A vast 82 percent in Alabama say they are "very worried" about the economy, the highest in any state this year where the question has been asked (Ohio, South Carolina and New Hampshire). It wasn't asked in Mississippi.
Among other nuggets:
The preliminary exit poll results found large numbers of seniors voting in both states, the most this cycle if it holds. But seniors often vote early, meaning this may diminish in later data.
In Alabama, turnout among Republicans appears to be down. They account for two-thirds of voters in preliminary results, compared with 78 percent in 2008; instead more self-identified independents are participating.
And in Mississippi, just more than four in 10 percent call themselves "very conservative," up from 34 percent in the state's primary in 2008. It's nearly as high in Alabama, with both numbers above the average this year.