The early exits are in, and in three key states — Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia — Republican electorates are broadly shaping up to look a lot like those that voted four years ago, with some important differences.
Overall, conservatives make up big shares of voters in all three states, just as they did in 2008.
In Georgia, about two-thirds of Republican primary voters are evangelical Christians, according to preliminary exit polling. The proportion bumps up to nearly three-quarters in Tennessee; it’s around half of all voters in Ohio. Turnout across the three states is at least as high as it was in the 2008 primaries. Evangelical Christians have been a trouble spot for Mitt Romney in several states, and they helped fuel Rick Santorum’s win in Iowa and Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina.
According to preliminary results, by 2 to 1, GOP voters in all three states prioritize business over government experience when thinking about what makes an effective president.
Georgia: In Georgia, Gingrich challenges Romney as the candidate most likely to beat Obama, but Romney has big leads on this question in both Ohio and Tennessee.
Ohio: A general lack of enthusiasm appears among Ohio primary voters, with barely more than four in 10 saying they’re strongly behind their candidate.
Independents: About a quarter of early voters in preliminary exit polls identify as independents in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia, up from 2008.
Tennessee: Just over four in 10 primary voters in Tennessee are “very conservative” ideologically, on the high side for states that have voted. Around three-quarters are evangelical Christians, among the highest proportion in states that have voted so far.
Upscale voters: In the early data, the GOP primary electorate in Ohio appears more educated and higher-income than its 2008 counterpart. Close to half of the voters have a college degree, and about three in 10 have income of $100,000 or more, both up from four years ago.
Ideology: While the overall ideological makeup is similar to 2008, there are different shades. In Ohio, about three-quarters say they are fiscally conservative, while about six in 10 say they are socially conservative.
Catholics: If the early numbers hold, the Ohio GOP electorate will be far more Catholic than the one that went to the polls in 2008. Now, more than a third of all voters say they’re Catholic, up from 26 percent four years ago.
Issues: Majorities of primary voters in Ohio and Georgia say the economy is the most important issue in their vote; it’s also No. 1 in Tennessee, as it has been in previous contests with exit polls.
Attributes: The ability to defeat Obama in the fall rises to the top as the most important attribute that primary voters are looking for in Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee.
Religious beliefs important: More than six in 10 primary voters in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia say it’s important to share a candidate’s religious beliefs, according to preliminary exit polling. Sharing religious values peaks in Tennessee, where nearly three-quarters say so.
Loyal Republicans? Roughly six in 10 Ohio primary voters say they’ll definitely back the Republican nominee for president, regardless of who eventually wins the nomination. That resembles the 62 percent of voters who said so in Michigan last week, but trails the more than seven in 10 voters in Tennessee and eight in 10 in Georgia who say they’ll stick with the party’s nominee.
Tea party political movement: Upward of six in 10 voters in preliminary Ohio and Tennessee exit polling say they’re supporters of the tea party political movement. Among these three states, the number saying so peaks in Georgia, at about seven in 10.
Abortion: Wide majorities in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia say abortion should be illegal in early exit polls. But those numbers have slipped a bit since 2008, at least in the early numbers.
Late deciders: About a quarter of all GOP primary voters in Ohio and Tennessee say they made up their minds in the past few days; a somewhat higher proportion say so in Georgia, according to the early interviews.
These are preliminary results of Republican voters as they exited primary voting places in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia on March 6, 2012. The poll was conducted by Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool, The Washington Post and other media organizations.