Rick Santorum carried the Louisiana Republican primary with a broad base of enthusiastic supporters and his widest margins of the campaign over Mitt Romney among the conservatives and evangelicals who have lifted his campaign across the South, according to exit polls conducted there for The Associated Press.
TRUE BELIEVERS: About two-thirds of those who turned out Saturday said they strongly backed their candidate, among the highest levels seen in entrance and exit polls conducted during this year's nomination contest. Santorum was the primary benefactor of voters' enthusiasm: 64 percent of his supporters strongly backed him, compared with 56 percent of Romney's.
FIGHT UNTIL THE END: Seven in 10 voters said they want to see their candidate ultimately win the nomination, even if that means the campaign goes on for months, while 27 percent were hoping for a quick end regardless of the outcome.
Overall, 73 percent said they would be satisfied if Santorum led the GOP ticket in the fall, compared with 56 percent who would be satisfied with Romney and 67 percent with Newt Gingrich. A narrow majority of Romney's supporters said they would be satisfied with Santorum atop the ticket, though fewer Santorum backers (42 percent) said they'd be satisfied with a Romney candidacy.
SEEKING CONSERVATIVE CRED: Seventy-seven percent of Republican primary voters in the state called themselves conservatives, and Santorum won the votes of half of them. Nearly a quarter of voters _ including 27 percent of conservatives _ said it was most important to them to choose a candidate who is a true conservative, the highest share in exit polls so far this cycle. Santorum carried 73 percent of the votes among this group. Still, most conservatives said they would be satisfied with Romney as the party's nominee.
ON RELIGION: Santorum won 56 percent of white evangelical voters in Louisiana, marking only the second time he's topped 50 percent among this group. Voters in Louisiana were less likely to be born-again or evangelical Christians than those in other Deep South states. White evangelicals made up 57 percent of voters there, compared with 80 percent in Mississippi, 75 percent in Alabama, 73 percent in Tennessee and 64 percent in Georgia and South Carolina.
A sizable 43 percent of voters said it mattered a great deal that a candidate share their religious beliefs, an issue that sharply divides Romney and Santorum voters. Santorum dominated among this group, topping Romney 67 percent to 15 percent.
SANTORUM'S EMPATHY EDGE: Four in 10 voters said Santorum is the candidate who best understands the problems of average Americans, double the share who said Romney is most empathetic. Santorum also tops Romney among economy voters for the first time in the campaign, 46 percent to 30 percent.
Despite recent national polls showing Americans generally growing more optimistic about the economy, Republican primary voters remain bearish. In Louisiana, 61 percent said they saw the economy as getting worse, far more than the 45 percent who said so among Republican primary voters in Illinois earlier this week.
Voters without college degrees were more apt than those who had completed college to say that the economy was worsening, and Santorum won 54 percent of those without degrees, his best showing of the campaign among this group.
The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Louisiana. Preliminary results include interviews with 1,499 voters; the poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.