Polls show no clear favorite in the Mississippi and Alabama Republican primaries. Surveys from American Research Group conducted over the weekend show Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich within three percentage points of one another, and automated polls by the Democratic-leaning firm PPP find Rick Santorum also in the hunt.
Romney prevailed in the last two close races in Ohio and Michigan, but high turnout among evangelical Christians and strong conservatives could keep him from running the table this time. Here are three key factors to watch in tonight’s exit polls:
Religious connections - Santorum has scored big wins among voters saying it’s important to share a candidate’s religious beliefs. In Tennessee last week, Santorum won an outright majority of those saying religious connections mattered a “great deal.” In neighboring Alabama, nearly half of voters said a candidate’s religious views mattered a great deal in the 2008 Republican primary.
Gingrich also won religiously-focused voters in Georgia, his home state, and South Carolina. If he can compete with Santorum among this group he will be primed for a solid performance in both Alabama and Mississippi tonight.
Electability (is it enough?) - Ability to defeat President Obama has been the No. 1 candidate attribute in every single primary contest so far, and Romney has won electability-focused voters in all but two contests - Gingrich won them in Georgia and South Carolina. Romney’s Massachusetts heritage may not be the best pedigree for Mississippi voters, but he is poised to benefit if voters are looking for a winner in the general election.
Abortion voters - Abortion has been low on the list of top issues for GOP voters this year, but it may loom larger in the minds of Mississippi Republicans, whose state defeated a constitutional amendment last November to recognize a fertilized egg as a person.
Santorum and Gingrich have each racked up massive margins among abortion-focused voters, according to exit polls, while Romney has struggled.