(CBS News) Newt Gingrich won a convincing victory in Georgia tonight by running well across most groups of voters and by taking advantage of his Georgia heritage. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum finished well behind as they were unable to gain enough traction among the Republican voters that have supported them in other states.
The Home State Advantage
While only about a third of voters said that Gingrich's ties to Georgia mattered in their choice of candidates, Gingrich won three quarters of their votes. Voters who said that his ties to the state did not matter to them split their votes among the candidates, with Romney slightly ahead of Gingrich and Santorum. Romney's lead among this large group of voters was not nearly enough to offset Gingrich's very large advantage among those who voted for him in recognition of his years as member of the House of Representative from Georgia and as speaker of the House.
The Issues and the Candidates
The economy and the federal budget deficit were the overriding issues for voters in the Republican primary. Mitt Romney's business experience was not enough to propel him ahead on these issues in Georgia as has been the case in other primaries. Over 4 in 10 voters in the Republican primary most wanted a candidate who could beat Barack Obama in November and Gingrich edged ahead of Romney among these voters 46 percent to 38 percent. A fifth of voters most wanted someone who has the right experience and slightly fewer most wanted someone who is a true conservative. Gingrich won over these voters by large margins. Seventeen percent of voters most wanted someone who has strong moral character and it was here that Rick Santorum broke through, winning 55 percent of these voters.
Almost 7 in 10 voters in the Republican primary said they are evangelical or born-again Christians. Gingrich captured half of these voters with Romney getting only 2 in 10. Romney and Gingrich ran even among non-evangelicals but they were less than a third of all voters. Although less than 10 percent of Georgia voters said that abortion was the most important issue to them, 1 out of 4 said that abortion should be illegal in all cases. Rick Santorum ran strongly in this group, finishing just Newt Gingrich. As in other states, Mitt Romney did not fare well with these anti-abortion voters.
The best news in the Georgia primary for Mitt Romney may be that many voters see him as the strongest candidate against Barack Obama. When asked to name the candidate that would be most likely to defeat Mr. Obama - leaving aside their vote today - 41 percent said it was Romney while 38 percent said Gingrich. About 20 percent of people who voted for Gingrich said Romney would be the strongest candidate in November; a quarter of Santorum voters felt the same way. Many people who didn't vote for him still think Mitt Romney will be a strong candidate in November. However, a note of caution for Romney is that 55 percent of voters in the Georgia primary said that he isn't conservative enough for them.