Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney needed demographic breakthroughs to win the Mississippi and Alabama primaries, and he didn't get them. Instead GOP voters in the two states handed victories to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, did not improve his performance among the constituencies with which he has most struggled during the nominating process, according to preliminary exit polls of Mississippi. Rather, Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- his two chief competitors -- effectively split the vote. That actually allowed Romney to run close to even among white evangelical voters, tea party supporters, voters without a college degree, rural voters and lower- and middle-income voters -- groups that have been most resistant to him.
But in Alabama, Romney trailed Gingrich and Santorum among these groups, suggesting the challenges ahead as he tries to rally Republican primary voters behind his candidacy.
On paper, the Mississippi GOP primary electorate appeared daunting for Romney, who is Mormon. Four in five voters identified as white, born-again or evangelical Christians, the highest rate of any state to date in the nominating process. Two-thirds of voters identified as tea party supporters. Nearly 60 percent of Mississippi voters did not graduate from college, more than in any other state. More than half -- 55 percent -- were from rural communities. And 36 percent of voters said they make less than $50,000 a year.
But, in a political near-perfect storm, Romney managed to run only narrowly behind his competitors in all of those subgroups. Among white evangelicals in Mississippi, Romney ron 29 percent of the vote, closely behind Santorum (35 percent) and Gingrich (32 percent). Among tea party supporters, Gingrich and Santorum tied at 34 percent, but Romney was close behind, with 27 percent. It was the same among those voters without a college degree: Santorum and Gingrich tied with 34 percent, with Romney at 28 percent. It was a three-way tie among rural voters: Santorum won 33 percent, with Gingrich and Romney tied at 31 percent. And Santorum and Gingrich were tied at 33 percent among low-income voters, with Romney at 27 percent.
Romney did have an edge among his traditional core voters. He bested Santorum among non-evangelicals, 33 percent to 27 percent. Santorum tied Romney among voters with a college degree at 33 percent. And Romney won 34 percent of voters earning more than $100,000, compared to 31 percent for Santorum and 28 percent for Gingrich.
In Alabama, however, Romney posted a weaker showing among groups that have been resistant to his candidacy. White evangelicals made up three-fourths of the electorate in that state, and Romney (27 percent) ran third, trailing Santorum (35 percent) and Gingrich (32 percent). Romney edged Santorum, 34 percent to 31 percent, among non-evangelicals.
Fifty-six percent of Alabama primary voters do not have a college degree, and with that group, Santorum won 33 percent, Gingrich, 32 percent, and Romney, 26percent. Romney ran stronger but also trailed Santorum among college graduates, 36 percent to 33 percent, with Gingrich at 25 percent.
Santorum also won lower- and middle-income voters in Alabama. Romney won voters earning more than $100,000 a year, but they made up only 23 percent of the total.
Meanwhile, Santorum was unable to expand his reach beyond the most religious voters. He won just 31 percent of the non-evangelical vote in Alabama, and 27 percent in Mississippi, rates that have resembled his ceiling in other states in which exit polls were conducted. Notably, in states like Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, which Santorum won, there were no entrance or exit polls.
The electorates in the two neighboring Southern states were slightly different: Thirty-three percent of Mississippi voters were age 65 or older, compared to just 27 percent in Alabama. The electorate in Mississippi was also slightly more conservative, with 42 percent of voters saying they are very conservative, more than the 36 percent in Alabama who described their ideology that way. Perhaps accordingly, self-identified independents made up a larger percentage of the electorate in Alabama (24 percent) than in Mississippi (16 percent).
As in other states, Romney performed best in Alabama and Mississippi among those voters who said the candidate quality that mattered most to them was the ability to defeat President Obama in the fall. He won 51 percent of the vote in Alabama and 46 percent in Mississippi among those voters, who comprised 36 percent and 39 percent of the respective electorates. Santorum, on the other hand, ran best among those voters seeking a "true conservative," winning roughly half of the vote, and voters seeking a candidate with "strong moral character," capturing around 60 percent in each state. Gingrich won among voters looking for a candidate with "the right experience," taking 51 percent of that vote in Alabama and 59 percent in Mississippi.
Majorities of voters in both states said the economy was the most important issue for them, and Romney won in both states among these voters, though by single-digit margins. Voters concerned about the federal deficit narrowly preferred Gingrich, and the percentages of voters who said the most important issue was either abortion rights or illegal immigration were too small for exit pollsters to report significant results.