8 lessons from the Republican presidential race so far

Campaign 2012 South Carolina GOP Candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum CBS/AP

Newt Gingrich,  Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum
CBS/AP
The first month of the Republican nomination process is complete and it has produced one of the most exciting races in a generation. Three different candidates have won the first four contests - Rick Santorum in Iowa, Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, and Romney in Florida - and no single candidate has won two in a row. Examining the CBS News entrance/exit polls of voters in these states offers a number of insights into the GOP nomination battle as well as the upcoming presidential race.

Full CBS News GOP primary election results

Republicans Don't Love Their Choices

Contest after contest has shown that voters are not satisfied with the field of Republican candidates. Nearly a third of Iowan Republican caucus-goers said they had reservations about their vote choice. In New Hampshire, 31 percent of Republican primary voters reported they were unsatisfied with the Republican candidates. In the Florida Republican primary, nearly 4-in-10 voters indicated that they would like to see someone else run for the Republican nomination.

Voters Struggle to Make Up Their Minds

As a result of this dissatisfaction with the field, voters are waiting until the last minute to determine for whom to  award their ballot. In Iowa, nearly half of caucus-goers decided in the last few days. Of those voters, two in 10 made their decision on Election Day. In New Hampshire, 46 percent of Republican primary voters decided in the last few days, of which 21 percent made up their mind on the last day. In South Carolina, roughly half of Republican primary voters settled on a choice in the last few days before the election, while in the Florida, a quarter of Republican voters were late deciders.

Iowa entrance poll
New Hampshire exit poll
South Carolina exit poll
Florida exit poll

Debates Matter

Debates are proving to play a vital role in voters' choices. In the South Carolina Republican primary, 65 percent of voters indicated the debates - those in which Gingrich successfully deflected questions about his extramarital affairs and attacked Romney about his tax returns - were an important factor in their decision. Of those voters citing the importance of the debates in their decision, 50 percent cast ballots for Gingrich, compared to 22 percent for Romney. In the debates prior to Florida, Romney looked far more impressive, criticizing Gingrich's spending proposals and countering his accusations. Florida Republican primary voters clearly took notice. Among the 69 percent of voters who indicated that the debates were an important factor in their decision, Romney was preferred to Gingrich 42 percent to 34 percent.

The Economy Is The Top Issue 

Despite discussion in the debates and along the campaign trail about topics ranging from illegal immigration to lunar colonization, voters continually prioritized the economy in their vote choices. In every contest to date, a plurality of voters has indicated that the economy is the most important issue in the campaign. In the last three states, more than 6-out-of-10 voters cited the economy as the issue that mattered most in deciding their vote. Even with recent improvements in economic conditions, voters continue to struggle across the country. In New Hampshire, 68 percent of Republican primary voters said they were very worried about the economy. In the South Carolina Republican primary, 88 percent of voters said that their financial situation was holding steady or falling behind. In Florida, 49 percent of Republican primary voters reported coming from communities where foreclosures have been a major problem.

An Ideological Divide Has Emerged Among Voters

Sharp differences have emerged between very conservative and more moderate voters about which candidate should represent the Republican Party in the November election. In the Iowa Republican caucuses, strongly conservative voters preferred Santorum to Romney 35 percent to 14 percent, whereas moderate or liberal voters preferred Romney to Santorum 35 percent to 8 percent. In the South Carolina Republican primary, strongly conservative voters preferred Gingrich to Romney 48 percent to 19 percent, whereas moderate or liberal voters preferred Romney to Gingrich 34 percent to 31 percent. And, in the Florida Republican primary, strongly conservative voters preferred Gingrich to Romney 41 percent to 30, whereas moderate or liberal voters preferred Romney to Gingrich 59 percent to 20 percent.

Romney's Got A Money Problem

In discussing economic issues, Romney has often seemed insensitive to the struggles of low-income voters, highlighted by comments such as "I'm not concerned about the very poor" and "I like being able to fire people." Not surprisingly, Romney has done poorly among voters from households earning less than $50,000 annually. In Iowa, Romney only secured 16 percent support from low-income voters, while in South Carolina he could not top 25 percent. In New Hampshire, Romney did 17 percentage points worse among voters from households earning less than $50,000 than voters from households earning more than $100,000, while in Florida he did eight points worse.

Gingrich and Santorum Are Diminishing Each Other's Chances

Gingrich and Santorum have attracted the same types of voters in the first four contests. Both appeal to evangelicals, Tea Party supporters, and rural residents. As a result, they have each made it far more difficult for the other to succeed. In the Iowa Republican caucuses, Santorum would have been able to defeat Romney easily, if Gingrich had not won 14 percent of the vote. In the Florida Republican primary, Gingrich would have performed far better if Santorum had not secured 13 percent of the vote.

Beating Obama Is What Matters Most

Despite the inability of voters in the Republican nomination process to coalesce around a single candidate, there is growing agreement about what matters most to them: the ability to defeat President Obama in the November election. With each successive contest more and more voters are indicating that beating Mr.  Obama is the most important candidate trait in their decision - more important than experience, moral character, or conservative credential. In Iowa, 31 percent of caucus attendees cited beating Mr. Obama as the most important candidate quality. In New Hampshire, the number inched up to 35 percent. The South Carolina and Florida primaries both found that 45 percent of voters prioritized defeating Mr. Obama.

Full coverage: Campaign 2012

  • Samuel Best

    Samuel J. Best is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the former director of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. He has written numerous books and articles about public opinion and electoral behavior, including Exit Polls: Surveying the American Electorate, 1972-2008, scheduled to be published by CQ Press in 2012. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the State University New York at Stony Brook.

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