- Apr 12, 2008
- Reaction score
- real world
Gingrich Won on Electability: Exit Polls
By ANDREW GROSSMAN
Two of the key arguments of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy—that he knows best how to handle the economy and stands the best chance of beating President Barack Obama—were dismissed by conservative South Carolina voters in the Republican primary Saturday, according to exit poll data from the state.
That finding shows why former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won a solid victory, and also suggests the Romney camp may seek new ways to drive home its core message in the contests that lie ahead.
In all three nominating contests so far, at least a plurality of voters have said the economy and electability were important factors. In Iowa and New Hampshire, such voters backed Mr. Romney. But in South Carolina, they backed Mr. Gingrich.
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Indeed, South Carolinians placed an even higher priority on beating President Obama than did their counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire. About one-third of voters in each of the other two early states told pollsters that the ability to defeat Mr. Obama was the most important candidate quality. In South Carolina, 45% said that was their highest priority, according to exit poll data released by CNN. Half of them voted for Mr. Gingrich, while fewer than four in 10 voted for Mr. Romney.
Similarly, a far larger proportion of South Carolina voters said the economy was the most important issue than did their counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire. If South Carolinians had followed the pattern of voters in previous states on which candidate they favored on the economy, that would have meant a big win for Mr. Romney. But they didn't. Four in 10 of those voters backed Mr. Gingrich Saturday, while one-third backed Mr. Romney.
South Carolina has the highest unemployment rate of the three states that have voted so far. Mr. Gingrich won with the 88% of voters who characterized their family's economic situation as "holding steady" or "falling behind." Only among the 11% who said they were "getting ahead" did Mr. Romney win a plurality.
Those patterns won't necessarily be repeated. The electorate in South Carolina was overwhelmingly made up of conservatives and born-again or evangelical Christians. The electorate in Florida's Jan. 31 primary likely will include more who identify themselves as moderate and more secular—two groups that Mr. Romney did relatively well with Saturday. After Florida, the race moves north and west to less conservative states such as Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan. No southeastern states vote again until the March 6 Super Tuesday primaries.
Polls suggest that some South Carolina voters were uncomfortable with Mr. Romney's Mormon faith. Of the roughly 60% of voters who said religious beliefs of a candidate matter a "great deal" or "somewhat," 44% backed Mr. Gingrich, a Roman Catholic, and only one-fifth voted for Mr. Romney. But Mr. Romney's Mormonism could be helpful down the road. Nevada, which has a significant Mormon population, holds caucuses on Feb. 4.
Many South Carolina voters decided which candidate to support only recently, with debates weighing heavily on their decision, according to the survey.
Indeed, there was major upheaval in the race within the last week as voters were making up their minds. Candidates participated in two televised debates, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry abandoned his candidacy, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ex-wife said in an interview with ABC that he had asked to be in an "open marriage.''
Almost nine in 10 voters said debates were a factor in their decisions, while two-thirds said they were an important part of their decision. Mr. Gingrich won handily among those voters.
More than two-thirds of voters in South Carolina told pollers they consider themselves evangelical Christians, and similar shares called themselves conservative in ideology, and supportive of the tea-party movement.
Mr. Romney's time running private-equity firm Bain Capital came under increased criticism during the run-up to the South Carolina primary, but the attacks didn't seem to stick. More than two-thirds of South Carolina primary voters surveyed said they held a positive view of Mr. Romney's experience as an investor. But those that had a negative view overwhelmingly backed his rivals.
Write to Andrew Grossman at [email protected]