Beneath Romney’s double-digit victory in New Hampshire, the network exit poll shows a very different Republican electorate from last week’s Iowa caucuses. Here are the top 10 findings from an exit poll of voters conducted at polling places across the state. Looking for more? See how the candidates performed across nearly every exit poll question using this interactive graphic from the Post’s crack graphics team.
1. Romney wins strong tea party backers, wins evangelicals
The exit polls show these two groups that fueled Santorum’s strong Iowa performance — as expected — made up much smaller portions of the New Hampshire electorate. Even so, Romney held his ground among these groups, winning by double digits among strong tea party backers. He also topped Santorum among evangelicals, a group he lost by more than 20 points in Iowa a week ago.
The big question heading into South Carolina and Florida is whether Romney will perform as well among these key Republican groups as he did in New Hampshire. A recent CNN poll in South Carolina showed Romney winning evangelicals and tea party backers, but his opponents plan to blanket the Palmetto state with ads to pick off Romney backers ahead of the Jan. 21 contest.
2. Most important issue — economy, by far
The economy was the No. 1 issue by a long shot in New Hampshire. About six in 10 voters in exit polls name it as most important, dwarfing the deficit, abortion or health care. The economy is an even more dominant issue in New Hampshire than it was in the Iowa caucuses last week. Romney won 45 percent of “economy” voters in Tuesday’s election, while Paul matched him among those focused on the deficit. Santorum won more than four in 10 voters choosing abortion as the top issue, but this group made up a slender 6 percent of voters; in Iowa, they accounted for 13 percent of the electorate.
3. Romney: Agreeable and electable
In addition to winning nearly four in 10 New Hampshire primary voters, more than six in 10 said they’d be satisfied if Mitt Romney were to end up as the party’s nominee. Majorities said they’d be dissatisfied with Gingrich, Paul and Santorum as the GOP standard-bearer. In addition, a 56 percent majority chose Romney as the most electable against President Obama. Paul’s supporters would be most spurned by a Romney nomination: more than two-thirds of Paul backers said they’d be dissatisfied with such a result. It’s no surprise, then, that a third party run by Paul could seriously damage Romney’s chances of beating Obama.
4. Independents surge
Nearly half of voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary were self-identified independents, and 45 percent of voters were registered as “undeclared.” Both numbers are higher than in competitive GOP contest back to 1996. The independent surge was a boon to Paul and Huntsman. Paul topped the field with 32 percent of self-identified independents, and Huntsman’s 23 percent was more than double his showing among rank and file Republicans. Romney won nearly half of self-identified Republicans, with no other candidate breaking 20 percent.
5. Antipathy toward Obama
Fully four in 10 New Hampshire voters in the exit poll say they’re “angry” about the policies of the Obama administration, with just as many “dissatisfied.” The sour mood was sharpest among self-identified Republicans, but even a third of independents expressed anger at Obama.
Perhaps a less enviable result, Huntsman won 40 percent of voters who were “satisfied” with the Obama administration, one of his best levels of support from any group.
6. Fiscal vs. Social conservatives
Voters in New Hampshire were more apt to identify as fiscally than socially conservative, by a wide, 64 to 38 percent margin. On straight political ideology, 2012 voters lined up almost exactly with those who cast ballots in 2008. Santorum earned 20 percent among social conservatives but only 2 percent among social moderates and liberals. On the opposite end, Huntsman won 24 percent of those who are moderate on social issues, compared with 10 percent of social conservatives.
7. Late deciders
About one in five voters say they waited until primary day to decide on a candidate, with nearly half saying they decided in the past week according to the exit poll.The number of late deciders resembles last Tuesday’s Iowa contest, where 46 percent of caucus-goers made up their minds in the final days or on caucus day itself. Late deciders didn’t swing particularly hard for any candidate, but Romney earned 55 percent of the vote among those deciding before December.
8. Fears about the economy
Nearly seven in 10 New Hampshire voters say they were “very worried” about the national economy, almost three times the number saying so four years ago before the financial crisis that tanked the economy. Barely more than one in six say their families are “getting ahead” financially, a slide from 2008. Fully two-thirds say their just holding steady.
Romney led other candidates by similar margins among those expressing more and less concern. Romney did particularly well among voters who said their family’s are “getting ahead;” he also won 47 percent support among voters with incomes over $100,000. Paul peaked with 29 percent among those whose families are falling behind financially.
9. Principles vs. compromise
New Hampshire primary voters split 52 to 44 percent on whether elected officials should “make compromises to get things done” or “stick to principles.” Paul nearly matched Romney among voters who favored sticking to principles, while Romney led among those favoring compromise. Huntsman received more than four times as many votes from “compromise” voters as he did among “sticking” voters.
The exit poll results show New Hampshire voters focused on candidates’ issue positions over their leadership and personal qualities. That’s a flip from 2008 and 2000 when slim majorities of those who voted prioritized candidate qualities.
10. Paul’s first-time voters
First-time voters in the GOP primary made up 12 percent of the electorate, much lower than last week’s Iowa caucuses. Just like Iowa, though, new voters swung very strongly for Paul. Four in 10 first-time voters backed the Texas congressman, compared with 23 percent who backed Romney and 20 percent who chose Huntsman.
These are results from the Republican caucus poll of 2,772 voters as they entered 40 randomly selected polling places in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, 2012. The poll was conducted by Edison Media Research for National Election Pool, The Washington Post and other media organizations. The results for typical characteristics have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.