Mitt Romney won an expansive and overwhelming victory in Nevada on Saturday, defeating his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination among nearly every key faction of Silver State Republicans, according to entrance polls conducted as voters arrived at caucus sites around the state.
As he did four years ago, Romney romped the field among Mormon voters, who made up roughly a quarter of all caucusgoers, but he also won among voters of other faiths. Perhaps more importantly, Romney ran stronger among the state's most conservative Republicans than he has in the first four states in the presidential nominating process. But Romney's underperformance among lower-income Republicans in Nevada is likely to give his advisers pause, as the campaign continues its efforts to dig out from under comments Romney made earlier this week about his concern for the poorest Americans -- or lack thereof.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won 88 percent of Mormon caucusgoers, according to entrance polls, down slightly from his 95-percent performance among LDS voters in 2008. Mormons made up a quarter of the GOP electorate on Saturday.
But Romney also won 48 percent of Catholic caucusgoers and 37 percent of other Protestant caucusgoers. Romney also won among the 24 percent of caucusgoers who said they were white evangelical or born-again Christians, taking 43 percent of that vote. The only other state in which Romney has won among evangelicals this year was in New Hampshire, when Romney won among that group with only a 30-percent plurality. Even in Romney's convincing victory in Florida, Romney was edged among white evangelicals by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, won a majority of the 8 percent of caucusgoers who, when asked to describe their religion, chose "none." In 2008, Paul also won this group by a solid margin.
Aside from religion, Romney also ran up big margins among more conservative caucusgoers, including the groups who had thus far been most resistant to his candidacy.
Nearly half of caucusgoers, 49 percent, described themselves as "very conservative," and Romney won 46 percent of them. It is the first time he has received more than one-third of the "very conservative" vote this year, and only the second time he has won among very conservative voters (he won this group narrowly in New Hampshire).
Romney won half of supporters of the tea party movement, who made up nearly three-fourths of caucusgoers, his best performance among that group in any state thus far. He even won a 35-percent plurality among those who said they strongly supported the tea party, a group he lost by double-digit margins in every state other than New Hampshire.
Romney, whose wealth and recent statements about poor Americans have generated some less-than-positive headlines in recent weeks, continues to run better among wealthier GOP voters than lower-income voters. Among those making less than $30,000 a year, the race was a three-way tie between Gingrich (32 percent), Paul (31 percent) and Romney (29 percent). But Romney won those voters making more than $100,000 a year with a commanding 58-percent majority.
The income gap was more pronounced in Nevada than in other states, and combined with Romney's comments this week it could indicate a fissure among Republicans that Romney will need to close in order to secure his party's nomination. In Florida just earlier this week, Romney defeated Gingrich among lower-income voters by 10 points, a margin only slightly smaller than his 14-point victory in the Sunshine State.
And when Romney a majority of the votes in Nevada in 2008, there was no income gap, as Romney won roughly the same percentages of votes among those voters making less than $50,000 a year (49 percent) and those making more thn that (52 percent).
But despite Romney's struggles among downscale voters, he retains other important advantages as the race moves forward. Like their counterparts in the other states in the GOP nominating process, Nevada Republicans are looking for the candidate who has the best chance to defeat President Obama in the general election. Asked to choose which candidate quality mattered most in their vote, 43 percent picked the ability to beat Obama, 20 percent said the candidate who has strong moral character, 18 percent want the candidate who is a true conservative, and 16 percent prefer the candidate with the right experience. Nevada caucusgoers left little doubt as to which candidate they think is most electable: A staggering 70 percent of those who want a candidate who can beat Obama chose Romney, compared to just 20 percent who picked Gingrich.
The entrance polls were conducted outside caucus sites throughout the state on Saturday by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. The Nevada entrance poll surveyed 1,584 caucusgoers.