Updated: 11:11 p.m. ET
Mitt Romney won a resounding victory in the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday, significantly slowing any momentum Newt Gingrich may have gained from his victory in South Carolina ten days earlier. The CBS News exit poll of Florida Republican primary voters showed that Romney forged a coalition of ideologically moderate voters, senior citizens and Latinos on the back of two impressive debate performances and an effective early voting campaign. Romney did particularly well among voters prioritizing the economy and defeating Barack Obama in November.
Republican Moderates Flexed Their Muscle
Gingrich won decisively in South Carolina on the strength of his support among very conservative voters. In Florida, the moderate wing of the Republican party pushed back, propelling Romney to victory on Tuesday. Thirty-one percent of Florida Republican primary voters indentified themselves as liberal or moderate. Romney won this group by a substantial margin, defeating Gingrich 59 percent to 20 percent. Romney also easily defeated Gingrich among somewhat conservative voters 52 percent to 32 percent. Together, this allowed him to easily offset Gingrich's advantage amongst the 33 percent of very conservative Republicans who preferred him to Romney 41 percent to 30 percent.
Appealed to Seniors
Florida's senior citizens also packed a powerful punch in the Republican primary on Tuesday, throwing their weight squarely behind Romney. Voters who were 65 years of age or older comprised a sizable 36 percent of the electorate, more than a third larger than the share they comprised in any of the preceding contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. Romney won 51 percent of primary voters 65 years of age or older compared to only 34 percent for Gingrich.
It appears Florida's seniors were turned off by Gingrich's temperament and aggressive behavior. Barely half - 52 percent - of voters 65 years of age or older had a favorable view of Gingrich, compared to 79 percent of senior voters who had a favorable view of Romney. Moreover, a plurality of senior voters thought Gingrich ran the most unfair campaign of all the candidate, whereas a plurality of voters under 65 years of age thought Romney ran the most unfair campaign.
Top Choice Among Latinos
Romney did particularly well among Latino voters in the state. Latinos made up 14 percent of Florida Republican primary voters. Romney carried the group by a sizable margin, defeating Gingrich 54 percent to 29 percent. This was a dramatic improvement over his 2008 effort, when he secured only 14 percent of their support in losing the state to John McCain. Romney did well among both Florida's Cuban and non-Cuban communities. He bested Gingrich among Cuban voters 57 percent to 33 percent, and defeated him among non-Cuban Latino voters 51 percent to 23 percent.
Rebounded in Debates
The key to Gingrich's success in South Carolina - the campaign debates - proved to be a source of his downfall in Florida. Sixty-nine percent of Florida Republican primary voters said the recent debates were an important factor in their vote decision, even more than the 64 percent of South Carolinians who said they were key to their votes. Among Florida voters who cited the debates as important to their vote, they preferred Romney to Gingrich 42 percent to 34 percent, reversing the sizable advantage Gingrich had amongst this group in South Carolina.
Top Pick Among Early Deciders
Many Florida Republican primary voters made up their minds well before the candidates began visiting the state over the last week. Forty percent of voters made their decision more than a month ago, a far greater share of early deciders than were found in the first three contests. Among early deciders, Romney was the clear choice, topping Gingrich 54 percent to 27 percent.
Romney's campaign organization targeted these early deciders and urged many of the them to turn in their ballots well before Election Day. According to Republican primary officials, more than 600,000 Floridians voted early, casting their ballots in an eight-day window from Saturday, January 21, the date of the South Carolina primary, to January 28. These early voters skewed heavily for Romney, awarding 51 percent of their ballots compared to 33 percent for Gingrich.Full Florida primary results
Florida exit poll
Republican delegate scorecard
Full state-by-state GOP primary results
Most Likely to Defeat Beat Obama
Florida Republican primary voters placed considerable importance on Romney's perceived electability. Nearly half of them - 45 percent - indicated that the ability to defeat President Obama was the candidate quality that mattered most in their vote decision, compared to only 21 percent who said the right experience, 17 percent who said a candidate's strong moral character and 14 percent who said being a true conservative. Among those who cited defeating Mr. Obama as the most important candidate quality, a whopping 58 percent voted for Romney compared to only 33 percent for Gingrich.
Similarly, when voters were asked explicitly which candidate would be most the likely to defeat Mr. Obama regardless of who they supported, they overwhelming chose Romney by a nearly two-to-one margin over Gingrich. Of those voters who thought he had the best chance of winning, they overwhelmingly preferred Romney to Gingrich 76 percent to 9 percent.
Preferred Choice to Handle Economy
The economy was the most important issue in the Florida primary, as it has been in the three preceding contents in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Sixty-two percent of voters cited the economy as the issue that mattered most in determining their vote choice. Romney was the clear choice among these economic voters, receiving 51 percent of their support, compared to 31 percent for Gingrich.
Romney did much better among voters with financial struggles than he had in previous contests. For the first time, Romney won the support of voters from households earning less than $50,000 annually, besting Gingrich 44 percent to 31 percent. Even more impressively, he defeated Gingrich by four points among the 28 percent of voters who said they were falling behind financially - a group he lost to Gingrich by 19 percentage points in South Carolina - narrowly defeating him 41 percent to 37 percent.
Poll results discussed in this article are based on a National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research. Interviews were conducted with 2739 Republican primary voters as they exited precincts around Florida. The margin of error for the poll is +/-3 percentage points.