Republican voters clashed along familiar dividing lines Tuesday, with Mitt Romney scoring a convincing win amid Illinois’ more welcoming Republican electorate.
Once again, the exit polls showed primary voters stiffly divided about what kind of candidate should head the GOP presidential ticket. A signature split remains electability and experience versus character and authentic conservatism, but the vast majority could agree on one thing: They’re perfectly content with the contest dragging on for months to come so long as their candidate ends up on top.
Romney crushed his main competitors -- Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul -- as the candidate thought to have the best chance to beat President Obama in November and the one with the right kind of experience to be an effective president. Romney walloped his rivals among those prioritizing electability, winning 74 percent of their votes, his best showing among these voters outside of Massachusetts and Virginia.
On experience, Romney won 64 percent support - significantly better than he has typically - with Gingrich losing momentum on what had been his best attribute.
Romney drew strength from the more upscale Illinois electorate. Nearly four in 10 Illinois voters had family incomes of $100,000 or more, and Romney beat Santorum among this group by 27 points.
Romney won by a landslide among voters who thought sharing a candidate’s religious beliefs was unimportant to their vote. This group made up over four in 10 Illinois primary voters, about double their size in last week’s Mississippi and Alabama contests.
Santorum wins among ‘True conservative’ and ‘Character’ voters
Santorum finished a distant second, but again scored well among voters who picked “strong moral character” and being a “true conservative” as the top attributes a candidate should have. Together, these voters made up 42 percent of the electorate, and they favored Santorum over both Romney and Gingrich by huge margins.
Santorum also won by a 20-point margin voters who said it matters a great deal that a candidate shares their religious beliefs.
Romney was widely seen as the most electable, but his edge was slimmer on being the most empathetic. Over a third of Illinois primary voters said he is the candidate who best understands the problems of average Americans. Just under three in 10 chose Santorum on this measure, and about one in six named Gingrich.
Tepid support for all candidates
Illinois voters didn’t express overwhelming enthusiasm for any of their choices. Fewer than half of Romney and Santorum supporters said they “strongly favor” their choice. Similar numbers said they backed each candidate “with reservations” and another small share said they only voted for them because they disliked everyone else.
Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich’s supporters were somewhat more positive — 52 percent of their combined supporters backed their candidate strongly. But their voters were also more likely than Romney’s or Santorum’s to say they chose their candidate as a last resort.