“Can’t Buy Me Love” might be the theme song of the Super Tuesday primaries: Mitt Romney prevailed on electability, but in terms of a personal connection with voters’ concerns, it was another matter.
The result: A divided outcome that confirmed more than it settled, underscoring Romney’s advantages in the strength of his resume and the sense he’s best suited to defeat Barack Obama, but also marking his deficits among Republicans focused, instead, on a “true conservative,” strong moral character, shared religious beliefs, ideological benchmarks and blanket anti-abortion sentiment.
In Ohio, the headline battleground state, 50 percent of voters picked Romney as the candidate best able to win in November, more than twice as many as saw Rick Santorum as most electable. But when asked which candidate “best understands the problems of average Americans,” the tables turned – Romney’s tally dived to 22 percent, while a third, instead, picked Santorum.
In Tennessee, otherwise a very different state, with far more evangelical and very conservative voters than Ohio, it was a similar story on electability vs. empathy. More than four in 10 picked Romney as best able to beat Obama, nearly double Santorum’s tally. But on understanding average Americans’ problems, 60 percent picked either Santorum or Newt Gingrich – with Romney at just 18 percent.
Even in Vermont – a state hospitable to Romney, and one with fewer “very conservative” voters than in any primary to date save Massachusetts, Romney stumbled on the question of which candidate best understands average Americans’ problems. In this case, a third picked Ron Paul; 29 percent, Romney.
Romney has strong pushback: In all seven states holding primaries Tuesday night combined, 61 percent of voters picked either electability or experience as the top attribute they were looking for in a candidate – and 51 percent of them supported Romney, vs. 27 percent for Gingrich, just 16 percent for Santorum and 6 percent Paul. That speaks to the strengths that have made Romney the candidate to beat all year.
His challenge is that a sizable remaining chunk of the GOP electorate, 36 percent across these seven states, picked a different attribute as more important – either the candidate with “strong moral character” or the “true conservative.” And among these true believers, Romney’s support plummeted to just 17 percent. Forty-six percent instead voted for Santorum, 20 percent Paul, 16 percent Gingrich.
The result is an appeal that speaks more to the head than to the heart of the Republican Party. It explains Romney’s difficulties with very conservative, evangelical, religion-focused and strongly anti-abortion voters, all behind his loss in the three fully contested Southern states Tuesday night. It made for a remarkably close race in Ohio. And it suggests a candidacy, even with Romney’s powerful advantages, that so far falls short of the personal connection many in his party seek.
Specific elements of Romney’s challenges portend trouble especially in Southern states, with the Alabama and Mississippi primaries up next on the dance card. In the seven Super Tuesday primaries, he won 49 percent of non-evangelical voters overall – compared with 28 percent of evangelicals. In five of the states, he won 42 percent of those not focused on shared religious values with a candidate – dropping to 29 percent of those who said it did matter, and 17 percent of those to whom it mattered a great deal. (This wasn’t asked in Vermont or Massachusetts.)
The Super Tuesday exit polls, analyzed for ABC by Langer Research Associates, found that Romney won 43 percent of somewhat conservative, moderate or liberal voters overall – compared with 28 percent of very conservatives. And he won just 25 percent of those most strongly opposed to abortion, compared with 37 percent of others. (The latter was asked in six states, not Massachusetts.)
Romney also did best, as previously, with wealthier voters – he won 45 percent of those with incomes of $100,000 or more, vs. 35 percent of the less well-off, and with seniors, winning 45 percent, vs. 34 percent of those under 65. While both are reliable turnout groups, that’s a less broad base than he may like.
OHIO – In Ohio, a diverse mix of voters shaped an excruciatingly close contest, with Romney declared the apparent winner in the wee hours. Romney leaned on his standing as the most electable candidate; Santorum honed his appeal to conservatives and more religious voters, as well as prevailing on the common touch.
In other states, where the electorate was more homogenous – either much more conservative, as in Oklahoma and Tennessee, or much less so, as in Massachusetts and Vermont – the story was a different one. Ohio’s demographic and attitudinal diversity earned it its battleground reputation.
Beyond the electability-empathy division, a potentially key split was by gender: Exit poll results found an even division between Santorum and Romney among men. By contrast, Romney held a 17-point lead among non-married women – perhaps marking Santorum’s controversial comments on some women’s issues.
Politically, nearly seven in 10 voters in Ohio were Republicans, down from their share in the state’s primary in 2008 but more than last week’s Michigan primary; a quarter were independents. While Romney generally has done better with mainline Republicans than with non-Republicans this year, the margin in Ohio’s exit poll was very close.
Just fewer than half of Ohio voters were evangelicals – far fewer than in the Southern states voting Tuesday. But Santorum led in this group by 17 points, while Romney beat him among non-evangelicals by 15, a sharp religion-based difference. Santorum held a much larger 33-point lead, moreover, among voters who said it mattered “a great deal” that their candidate shared their religious beliefs.
Among very conservative voters, another key group in which Romney’s struggled this year, Santorum had 48 percent support, Romney 30 percent.
Economic status again was a factor as well. Romney did best by far among better-off voters, winning, for example, those with $100,000-plus incomes by 14 points (and those with $200,000-plus incomes by 29 points). It was much closer in less well-off groups. And Romney won college graduates, but not those who lack a college degree.
A summary of results in each of the other Super Tuesday primary states follows:
Santorum’s win in Tennessee came in one of the most conservative, most heavily evangelical, most religion-focused and most anti-abortion Republican primary electorates to date – all among the groups on which the former Pennsylvania senator has focused his appeal.
If Santorum’s win was less wide than might have been expected, it’s because another candidate, Gingrich, also held appeal to some of these same groups. While Gingrich finished third, he looks to have taken enough votes from Santorum to keep Romney closer than he’d otherwise have been.
Three-quarters of Tennessee voters were evangelicals; 42 percent of them voted for Santorum, with 24 percent for Gingrich and 23 percent for Romney. Seventy-six percent said it mattered to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs, including 43 percent who said it matters a great deal. In the latter group, 52 percent backed Santorum, 24 percent Gingrich, 17 percent Romney.
Seventy-two percent were conservative, and 41 percent described themselves as very conservative; Santorum won the former group with 41 percent support, the latter with 48 percent. Romney won just 18 percent of very conservatives, continuing his struggles there. Similarly, among the strongest abortion opponents, Santorum won 49 percent support, Gingrich 25 percent – and Romney just 16 percent. Indeed, in a direct measure, nearly half of Tennessee GOP primary voters said Romney is not conservative enough, compared to just 17 percent who said that about Santorum, and 23 percent about Gingrich.
Romney did far better with non-evangelicals and moderates, but they were few in number in Tennessee. Among voters not concerned with shared religious beliefs he won by 17 points over Santorum – but they made up barely a quarter of the electorate.
The gap between electability and empathy, apparent in states as disparate as Ohio and Vermont, showed up in Tennessee as well. Forty-three percent named Romney as the most likely candidate to defeat Obama in November, well ahead of the number who picked either Santorum (25 percent) or Gingrich (21 percent). But fewer than half as many said Romney understands the problems of average Americans – just 18 percent, trailing both Santorum and Gingrich, at 32 and 27 percent each.
Romney beat Gingrich and Santorum by 8 and 15 points, respectively, among voters who picked electability as the most important candidate attribute. But that margin was far narrower than in states where Romney’s prevailed. In contrast, among the 37 percent focused on a candidate who is a “true conservative” or has “strong moral character,” Santorum trounced Romney, 58-11 percent.
As in Tennessee, ideological and religious commitment provided Santorum with a win in the Oklahoma GOP primary, denying Romney a victory in any of the three fully contested Southern states.
Nearly half of Oklahoma voters called themselves very conservative, higher than in any other primary state this cycle, or in previous years within the state. And they broke for Santorum – 40 percent to Gingrich’s 32 percent and Romney’s 21.
Religion also was a big factor – nearly three-quarters of Oklahoma Republican voters were born-again, among the most in any state this year, and seven in 10 said it’s important to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs. Santorum won these groups by 10 and 13 point margins, respectively.
Among those who said shared religious beliefs mattered “a great deal,” moreover, Santorum won by a vast 28-point margin.
Forty-four percent in Oklahoma were looking chiefly for a candidate with “strong moral character” or for a “true conservative,” more than in any other state tonight, and more combined that the number focused on electability, Romney’s forte. Among “moral character” and “true conservative” voters. Santorum won 54 percent support, compared with 18 percent for Paul, 14 percent for Gingrich and just 13 percent for Romney.
The Oklahoma electorate also was lower-income than most so far this year, another boost in Santorum’s favor. More than four in 10 voters reported incomes less than $50,000 a year – 10 points more than in 2008 – and they backed Santorum by an 8-point margin over his nearest competitor.
Santorum was more competitive than elsewhere in some of Romney’s customarily stronger groups – college graduates, “somewhat” conservatives and self-identified Republicans. But Romney held tightly to his perceived electability: Among the more than four in 10 voters who called electability the most important quality in a candidate, 45 percent backed Romney, 34 percent Gingrich, just 18 percent Santorum.
Gingrich’s home-state advantage paved the way to his victory in Georgia, saving him in a state he called do-or-die – but leaving the question of where he turns next.
While a minority of voters, 38 percent in exit poll results, said Gingrich’s ties mattered at least somewhat in their vote, nearly all of them – 78 percent – voted for him. That produced 60 percent of his winning vote total in the state.
Strongly conservative groups also shaped Gingrich’s win – 39 percent identified themselves as very conservative and 68 percent as born-again Christians, both similar to the levels in next-door South Carolina, which Gingrich won last month. More than four in 10 called themselves strong supporters of the Tea Party movement, one of the highest levels of strong support for this group so far this cycle. In all three groups, Gingrich commanded more than half the vote. Just two in 10, by contrast, backed Romney, who’s struggled in these core GOP groups.
Romney instead was competitive in Georgia only in the groups in which he’s done well all cycle – highly-educated Republican voters, the very wealthy and non-evangelicals.
If Romney had one wish for the Republicans primaries ahead, it could easily be this: May all states be Massachusetts.
His overwhelming win in the state where he served as the governor came across demographic and attitudinal groups. The difficulty ahead: it’s a state in which such groups look considerably different than the norm.
Evangelical and very conservative voters, among whom Romney has struggled elsewhere, accounted for 16 and 15 percent of the state’s voters respectively, the fewest all year. Their preferences differed, too: Massachusetts evangelicals favored Romney over Santorum by more than a 2-to-1 margin, very conservatives by more than 3-1.
Nearly half of Massachusetts voters described themselves as moderates or liberals, the most in any state this season; they voted for Romney by a 60-point margin over Paul. Four in 10 reported incomes of more than $100,000 a year, making it the wealthiest electorate to date. They backed Romney by 65 percentage points.
As in other states, Romney led among voters who picked electability as the most important attribute in their vote. They accounted for four in 10 voters, as elsewhere, but in Massachusetts Romney won a remarkable 86 percent of them. He also won 82 percent of those focused chiefly on the candidates’ experience.
Unlike elsewhere. among those looking for a candidate with “strong moral character” or for a “true conservative,” 29 percent of voters, Romney also won – but by a narrower margin. In this group, 43 percent supported Romney, 28 percent Santorum and 22 percent Paul.
A surge in turnout by independent voters helped shape the race in Vermont – potentially complicating life, at least a little, for Romney.
Forty percent of GOP primary voters in the state described themselves as independents, vastly higher than the share of independents voting in the state’s open primary in 2008, 23 percent. And this year 38 percent of those independent voters supported Paul, vs. 31 percent for next-state neighbor Romney.
Romney came back with broad support among the half of Vermont voters who are Republicans. But the results raise some questions about his ability to inspire his loyalists to come to the polls, at least in snowy Vermont.
A third of voters in Vermont picked electability – being able to defeat Barack Obama in November – as the most important candidate attribute in their vote, and 62 percent of them voted for Romney. So did more than half of the voters looking for the right experience. Still Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, showed important vulnerabilities:
- Asked which candidate best understands the problems of average Americans, 32 percent picked Paul, vs. 29 percent Romney.
- Among the one in four voters who called “moral character” the most important attribute in a candidate, 41 percent voted for Santorum and 39 percent for Paul, vs. just 16 percent for Romney.
- And those looking chiefly for a true conservative – albeit just one in eight voters – also picked Paul and Santorum by wide margins over Romney, giving them 37 percent each, vs. 12 percent for Romney.
Nearly six in 10 Vermont GOP primary voters picked the economy as the most important issue in their vote, and they voted for Romney over other candidates. But among the one in four who thought the federal budget deficit was the most important issue, Paul ran evenly with Romney.
Two other factors worked in Romney’s favor: “Very” conservative voters, a group in which he’s struggled, made up 19 percent of the voters in Vermont, among their lowest share in any state to date (rivaled only by Massachusetts). And 27 percent were evangelicals, another more difficult group for Romney – also fewer than almost anywhere but Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Romney won easily in Virginia, a state where Santorum and Gingrich were not even on the ballot, and one with a more moderate electorate than the other Southern states voting tonight. But insurgent Paul pulled enough votes to give non-Romney forces some cheer nonetheless.
Paul won the one-third of Virginia voters who identified themselves as independents, by a wide 64-36 percent. He won the 36 percent looking either for the candidate with “strong moral character” or the “true conservative” in the race, by a combined total of 71-29 percent. Paul also won half of moderates or liberals voting in the commonwealth, and 43 percent of non-evangelical voters.
Still, Paul did not pull votes in some of the groups in which Romney has struggled – e.g., very conservatives, evangelicals, those focused on shared religious beliefs and abortion opponents. Paul has little appeal of his own there, and Romney, against form, won those groups by margins of 20 or more points.
If Santorum and Gingrich had been on the ballot, nearly four in 10 voters said they would have voted for Romney anyway. But if Santorum and Gingrich really had been on the ballot, the people who showed up to vote may well have been different – and the outcome, anyone’s guess.
Analysis by Gary Langer, with Patrick Moynihan, Julie E. Phelan, Gregory Holyk and Damla Ergun.