In Ohio's Republican primary, preliminary exit poll results find that more than half of voters pick Romney as the candidate best able to defeat Barack Obama in November, more than twice as many as see Rick Santorum as most electable. But when asked which candidate "best understands the problems of average Americans," the tables turn - Romney's tally dives to fewer than a quarter, while about a third pick Santorum.
Then consider Tennessee, otherwise a very different state, with, for example, far more evangelical and very conservative voters than Ohio - but a similar story on electability vs. empathy. Asked who can best beat Obama, more than four in 10 in Tennessee pick Romney, nearly double Santorum's tally. But ask who best understands average Americans problems, three in 10 pick Santorum; two in 10, Romney.
Even in Vermont - a state expected to be hospitable to Romney, and one where there are fewer "very conservative" voters than in any primary to date, Romney stumbles on the question of which candidate best understands the problems of average Americans. In this case, in preliminary exit poll results, a third say it's Ron Paul; fewer than three in 10 pick Romney.
There's a bit of a shift in these preliminary results from Florida, the only state where the empathy question was asked previously this year. There Romney did prevail on empathy, but by less of a margin than his vote total. Thirty-four percent picked him as best understanding average people's problems, vs. 27 percent for Newt Gingrich - a 7-point gap in a state Romney won by 14.
Whatever the outcome of the voting tonight, Romney clearly still has bridges to build.
Other preliminary exit poll results find a diverse mix of voters in Ohio helping to shape today's headline Super Tuesday contest, with preliminary exit poll results highlighting tensions in the Republican race as Romney leaned on his standing as the most electable candidate while Santorum challenged him with appeals to conservatives and working-class concerns.
Four in 10 Ohio voters call electability the single most important candidate attribute in their vote, ahead of the numbers looking chiefly for someone with strong moral character (about one in five), a true conservative (one in six) or chiefly focused on experience (again, one in six).
Politically, seven in 10 voters in Ohio are Republicans, down from their peak in 2008 but more than last week's Michigan primary; with a quarter independents. (Democrats are accounting for a very small share in this open primary, as is typical for Ohio.) Romney generally has done better with mainline Republicans than with non-Republicans this year.
While those results are positive for Romney, he also faces challenges in the Ohio electorate. Ohio voters weren't necessarily quick to decide: Nearly three in 10 made up their minds within the last few days; a group to watch, since, in Michigan last week, late deciders favored Santorum. While fewer than half of Ohio voters are evangelicals, that is more than in Michigan last week, and generally they've been a solid group for opponents of Romney. Fewer than half of Ohio voters today are college graduates, fewer than in Michigan; elsewhere non-graduates have been a weaker group for Romney.
As has been the case in every contest with exit polls so far this cycle, the top issue was the economy. More than half of the voters in Ohio pick it as the most important issue in their vote, overwhelming all others; next, is the federal budget deficit, cited by three in 10. Far fewer voters place abortion highest, one in 10; these voters have tended to be a solid group for Santorum.
But Santorum may seek the advantage of some voters' economic discontent: Seven in 10 voters in Ohio describe themselves as "very worried" about the economy, and in a separate question, nearly a third pick Santorum as the candidate who "best understands the problems of average Americans" - more than say so about any other candidate. About a quarter pick Romney on this basic measure of empathy.
Other states of interest are characterized by sharply different voter profiles and attitudes:
TENNESSEE - A conservative electorate characterizes turnout in Tennessee today: seven in 10 voters are evangelicals, more than in any other primary this year; three-quarters say it matters that a candidate shares their religion beliefs, much higher than in earlier contests where this was asked; and four in 10 describe themselves as "very" conservative, again, more than usual this year. More than two-thirds of voters in the Tennessee primary are Republicans, down from about three-quarters in 2008. While these figures may buoy Santorum's prospects, he does face hurdles in Tennessee. Preliminary exit poll results indicate that seniors, typically a good group for Romney, are turning out in larger than customary numbers for the state. Four in 10 voters name Romney as the most likely candidate to defeat Obama in November - lower than usual this cycle, but still about double the number who say so about either Santorum or Gingrich. And, as in Ohio, four in 10 voters pick electability as the most important candidate quality, nearly twice the number looking mainly for either a true conservative or for experience.
OKLAHOMA - Strong turnout among core conservative groups dominates the Oklahoma primary today. Evangelicals account for three-quarters of voters in these preliminary results - about as many as in 2008, but much higher than other states this cycle, save Tennessee. Nearly half of voters describe themselves as "very" conservative, more than typical this year, and more than in Oklahoma in 2008. And with more than four in 10 voters making under $50,000, the Oklahoma electorate is lower-income than most so far this year. Still, while again the economy dominates - about half of voters name the economy as the top issue - one in six voters pick abortion as their crucial issue, more than in previous states.
GEORGIA - Newt Gingrich looked to home cooking in Georgia to help revive his campaign. More than a third of voters in the Georgia primary say Gingrich's ties to the state were important in their vote, though fewer say his home-state appeal mattered a great deal. Even still, Georgia voters didn't decide earlier than the norm: About three in 10 decided in the past few days, with the majority having decided before that. The Georgia electorate this year is more conservative than in 2008: about four in 10 describe themselves as "very" conservative (up from about a third) and two-thirds are evangelicals (up from about six in 10).
Other states voting tonight were expected to be less competitive than those summarized above.