Voters going to the polls for the tightly fought GOP primaries in Mississippi and Alabama expressed strong support for their chosen candidates, compared with voters in earlier primaries, according to Tuesday's exit polls. And those polls suggested the ongoing nomination battle would not lead to a major fracture in the party come November.
Republican voters concerned about shared religious beliefs and looking for a candidate they consider a true conservative pushed Rick Santorum over the top in both states. The former Pennsylvania senator gained an extra boost from Newt Gingrich's failure to appeal to women.
IDEOLOGY AND SATISFACTION: Half of voters in both states said Mitt Romney's positions on the issues were generally not conservative enough, while most voters in each state said Gingrich's positions were ideologically about right. About half in each state called Santorum about right. The 24 percent who called Santorum "not conservative enough" in Mississippi is the highest so far in exit polls where the question has been asked.
Among voters who said it was most important to vote for a true conservative for the nomination, Santorum won a majority of votes in both Alabama and Mississippi.
LOOKING AHEAD TO NOVEMBER: Electability remains a top consideration for voters in the GOP primary, with about 4 in 10 in each state saying it was their chief concern in choosing a candidate. Asked separately which of the four remaining candidates had the best shot at beating President Barack Obama in the fall, just under half chose Romney.
Still, most Mississippi voters said they would be satisfied with Gingrich, Romney or Santorum at the top of the ticket, and in Alabama, 81 percent said they would definitely vote for the GOP nominee, no matter who wins in the end.
STRONGLY BEHIND THEIR CHOICES: Majorities of GOP voters in both states said they were strongly behind their chosen candidate: 60 percent in Mississippi and 53 percent in Alabama. Georgia, Massachusetts and Oklahoma were the only other states thus far where most voters were strongly behind their choice. In Alabama, 48 percent of Romney voters either had reservations about him or disliked their other choices. Thirty-nine percent of Santorum backers and 28 percent of Gingrich voters expressed similar concerns. In Mississippi, about half of Romney's and Santorum's supporters strongly favored their candidate, while 61 percent of Gingrich supporters strongly favored him.
RELIGIOUS VALUES: In both states, the vast majority of voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and about three-quarters said it mattered at least somewhat that a candidate share their religious beliefs. In both Alabama and Mississippi, Santorum held near-20 point advantages among those evangelicals who said shared beliefs mattered "a great deal" to their choice. Romney and Gingrich were more competitive among evangelical voters less focused on common religious beliefs.
GENDER GAP: Women made up 50 percent of voters in both states, making these two of just four states where women comprised 50 percent or more of the GOP electorate. In Alabama, women pushed Santorum over the top, breaking 38 percent for him to 30 percent for Romney and just 25 percent for Gingrich. In Mississippi, Santorum and Romney split women about evenly, 35 percent for Santorum to 32 percent for Romney, but Gingrich lagged behind at 29 percent.
A majority of Santorum's support in both states came from female supporters, while Gingrich drew most of his support from men. The difference was particularly stark among conservatives. Conservative men in Alabama gave Gingrich an 8 point lead over Santorum, while conservative women broke for Santorum by 11 points. In Mississippi, Santorum carried conservative women by 8 points, while he and Gingrich split the vote among conservative men.
ROMNEY'S EDGE SLIMMER AMONG ECONOMY VOTERS: Economic issues were top of mind for about 6 in 10 voters in both Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum and Gingrich both cut into the advantage Romney has held among economy voters throughout the nominating contests so far. In Mississippi, the three men split economy voters, and Romney held a slim 7 point edge among the group in Alabama. GOP voters in these states remain deeply negative about the nation's outlook, with 80 percent of Alabama voters very worried about the direction of the economy and 86 percent in Mississippi dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working.
TRUST IN AN INTERNATIONAL CRISIS: With tensions rising in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Alabama voters said they preferred Gingrich over his rivals to handle an international crisis: Forty percent thought Gingrich would do the best job handling one, outpacing Romney and Santorum by double digits.
LATE DECIDERS: About a third of voters in each state said they made up their minds in the final days of the contest, about on par with the share saying so in Georgia and Oklahoma during last week's Super Tuesday voting. Late breaking voters in Alabama were split between Romney and Santorum; those in Mississippi gave Santorum a 10 point advantage.
READING THE AIRWAVES: About half of voters in each state said campaign ads were an important factor in their choice, a bit more than said so in Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire or Iowa.
The surveys of voters in Alabama's and Mississippi's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes results among 1,589 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Alabama, and among 1,665 Mississippi voters as they left 30 polling places. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.