The Fix loves exit polls. Like, a lot.
Not this time! Here are five observations from the exit polls Tuesday night that tell us something important about the race going forward. Want to sift through them on your own? The Washington Post polling unit has a terrific sortable interactive exit poll tool. It’s fun — and educational!
1. Seniors like Romney: The only age group that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney carried over former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi were those over 65 years old. In Alabama, Romney won senior citizens by 10 points over Santorum while he won them in Mississippi by 11. Santorum walloped Romney among young (18-29) and middle age (30-44) voters. If Romney winds up as the Republican presidential nominee, his strength among seniors could matter; not only are older voters the most reliable of all voters but they also have strong presences in a number of potential swing states including Florida, Ohio and Arizona. (Random fact: Maine is the oldest state — by age — in the country.)
2. Santorum is the conservative choice: Whether or not former House Speaker Newt Gingrich knows it, Alabama and Mississippi voters made clear that Santorum is their guy. Among those who said that a candidate being a “true conservative” was the most important trait in making up their minds, Santorum beat Gingrich 52 percent to 34 percent in Mississippi and 51 percent to 34 percent in Alabama. Among those who said a “strong moral character” was the most important factor in choosing their candidate, Santorum beat Gingrich by 57 points in Mississippi and by 55 points in Alabama. Gingrich can stay in the race as long as he likes but if he wasn’t the conservative choice in Mississippi and Alabama where will he be?
3. Romney should talk experience: Assuming Gingrich is out of the race or at least marginalized in a major way, then Romney’s best message going forward may well be to focus on how his experience in the private (and public) sector is the best fit to be president. Gingrich won voters who prized experience convincingly over Romney in Alabama and Mississippi but even more noticeable was the gap between Romney and Santorum on the question. Twenty nine percent of Mississippi voters who prized experience over all other candidate traits went for Romney as compared to just eight percent who went for Santorum. In Alabama, Romney got 33 percent among “experience” voters as compared to just six percent who went for Santorum. If Romney can change the debate between he and Santorum from one about who is the true conservative candidate to one about who has the right experience to be president, that’s an argument he can win.
4. Electability isn’t enough: Roughly half of all voters in Alabama (46 percent) and Mississippi (49 percent) said that Romney was the candidate best able to beat President Obama. And yet, in Alabama Romney won only 66 percent of those voters while in Mississippi he won just 59 percent. Put simply: Romney lost more than third of voters in both states who believe he represents the party’s best chance of beating President Obama. And that’s in an electorate where beating Obama has long been the most important candidate attribute cited by voters in the early days of the primary process. Going forward, it’s clear that Romney can’t rely on electability alone to clinch the nomination; he needs to give voters another reason — beyond the fact they think he is going to win — to close the deal.
5. The Mormon issue: Romney’s Mormonism has been a back burner topic throughout the race. (Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said before the primary vote this week that “I think that’s a very subtle issue that probably may be a problem in many states – not just in Alabama.”). But, Romney lost voters who said it was very important for a candidate to share their religious beliefs by wide margins. Santorum took 48 percent to Romney’s 16 percent among those voters in Alabama and 43 percent to 26 percent among them in Mississippi. While Santorum is a Catholic and most voters in Alabama and Mississippi are southern Baptists, they clearly identify themselves more closely with Santorum’s religion that Romney’s religion. (It’s no secret that among some evangelical Christians, Mormonism is viewed very skeptically.) Romney’s positioning as the moderate in the field clearly hurt his chances in Mississippi and Alabama but his Mormon faith didn’t help matters either.