How Rick Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at his election night rally at Steubenville High School, Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Steubenville, Ohio. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum
AP Photo/Eric Gay

Rick Santorum fashioned wins in Tennessee and Oklahoma by appealing to very conservative, religious, and lower to middle income voters. Abortion was a critical issue for him. Mitt Romney continues to run poorly among these Republican voters. Newt Gingrich ran well in both states with voters giving him points for his experience and by tapping into anger against the federal government.

Complete Tennessee primary results
Tennessee exit poll
Tennessee results by county

Complete Oklahoma primary results
Oklahoma exit poll
Oklahoma results by county

Ideology

As in other Republican primaries, Mitt Romney simply does not get many votes from those who say they are very conservative. And large numbers of voters in both states described themselves as very conservative - 46 percent in Oklahoma and 41 percent in Tennessee. These voters form a strong base of support for Rick Santorum. He won almost half of their votes in Tennessee and 4 in 10 in Oklahoma. Newt Gingrich got a solid share of these voters as well, particularly in Oklahoma. One indication of Romney's problems with Republican voters is that half of all of the primary voters in Tennessee said that his positions on the issues are not conservative enough for them. Gingrich does best among those who say that they are angry about the way the Federal government is working and those who are most supportive of the Tea Party.

Religious Voters

Three quarters of primary voters in both states said they are born-again or evangelical Christians. Large numbers also said that it matters a great deal or somewhat that a candidate shares their religious beliefs. Santorum draws strong support from these voters. Over 40 percent of these voters chose Santorum in both primaries. Among those for whom religious beliefs were most critical to their vote - 43 percent in Tennessee and 30 percent in Oklahoma - Santorum won just over half of their votes.

The Abortion Issue

Only a little over 10 percent of voters in both states chose abortion as the one issue that mattered most to them in this election. But Santorum won big among these voters getting 67 percent of their votes in Oklahoma and 57 percent in Tennessee. Larger numbers of voters, a little over 25 percent in both states, said that abortion should be illegal in all cases. And Santorum won half of their votes. Even though a minority of voters was so highly motivated by abortion in these primaries it was enough to give Santorum a large portion of his winning margin in both states.

The Economy

A large majority of voters in both states said that the economy and the Federal budget deficit were the most important issues in this election. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich fared better among these voters. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich ran competitively among this group of voters. This shows how important the abortion issue was for Santorum. Without it his winning margin virtually disappears in both states. Some bad news for Romney is that he did not show great strength on the very issues he has been emphasizing. In neither state did he do appreciably better than Santorum or Gingrich among voters most concerned with the economy or deficit.

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What Qualities Did the Voters Want?

Voters in both states split on the qualities that they most wanted in their candidate. More voters said that defeating Barack Obama in November was most important, though that was just 4 in 10 in both states. Others said they were looking for a candidate who is a true conservative, or one who has a strong moral character, or someone who has the right experience. In both states, Rick Santorum did especially well among those voters who were looking for a true conservative or someone who has strong moral character. Mitt Romney's strength is best seen among voters looking for someone who can beat Obama though New Gingrich also did well with these voters. Gingrich also ran strongly among those who want a candidate with the right experience, particularly in Oklahoma, where he won a majority of these voters. Romney ran slightly ahead of Gingrich in this group of voters in Tennessee. Even if they don't like his positions on the issues, many voters still believe that Romney would be strongest candidate to take on Obama in November. The exit poll in Tennessee shows that 43 percent of primary voters in that state think Romney is the most likely to beat Obama versus 25 percent for Santorum and 21 percent for Gingrich. A significant number of Santorum and Gingrich voters do think that Romney is the stronger Republican candidate.

An Enthusiasm Problem?

If Mitt Romney goes on to win the Republican nomination he may do so despite many voters having reservations about him. In both Tennessee and Oklahoma just under 50 percent of the people who voted for Romney said that they strongly favored him. Virtually the same fraction of his voters said that they liked him but have reservations. Those who voted for Newt Gingrich were the most enthusiastic about their candidate. Rick Santorum voters in Oklahoma were likely to be strong supporters of him but his voters in Tennessee were much less enthusiastic. The rough and tumble Republican primary race is taking a toll on these candidates and this may be a problem looking ahead to the general election.

Complete Republican primary results
CBS News estimated Republican delegate scorecard

Super Tuesday results by state: Alaska | Georgia | Idaho | Massachusetts | North Dakota | Ohio | Oklahoma | Tennessee | Vermont | Virginia

  • Stanley Feldman

    Stanley Feldman is a Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University.

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