How Romney won Ohio

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his Super Tuesday primary party in Boston, Tuesday, March 6, 2012. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Romney eked out a narrow victory in the Ohio Republican primary on Tuesday. The CBS News exit poll of Ohio Republican primary voters showed that Rick Santorum's coalition of crossover Democrats and socially conservative voters was not quite large enough to offset Mitt Romney's base of ideogically moderate voters. Romney's draw, once again, centered on his electability and his attractiveness to voters prioritizing economic issues.

Complete Ohio primary results
Ohio exit poll
Ohio results by county

Democrats Failed to Disrupt the Party

Crossover Democrat voters nearly secured a victory for Santorum in the Ohio Republican primary, just like they almost did in Michigan a week earlier. Ohio is an open primary state where voters of all stripes can cast ballots. On Tuesday, 5 percent of those turning out for the Republican contest identified themselves as Democrats. These Democratic voters overwhelmingly supported Santorum over Romney 47 percent to 27 percent. If these Democratic voters had not cast ballots in the Republican primary, Romney would have won Ohio by roughly a 3-point margin.

Won The Support of Voters Prioritizing Electability and the Economy

Romney ultimately won the Ohio Republican primary on the ballots of ideologically moderate voters. A third of voters identified themselves as somewhat conservative, while another third identified themselves as moderate or liberal. Romney comfortably won both groups, defeating Santorum amongst somewhat conservatives 40 percent to 34 percent and amongst moderates/liberals 43 percent to 29 percent.

As it has in most of the primaries to date, Romney's appeal was grounded in his perceived electability and positions on economic issues. A sizable plurality of voters overall - 42 percent - indicated that the ability to defeat Barack Obama in November was the candidate quality that mattered most in deciding how they voted, topping by a more than 2-to-1 margin the 21 percent of voters who cited moral character, the 17 percent who cited experience, and the 17 percent who cited conservative credentials. Of those indicating electability was their top candidate trait, Romney was preferred to Santorum by a sizable 52 percent to 27 percent margin.

Romney's emphasis on the economy and jobs in Ohio - repeatedly telling crowds on the campaign trail "the economy is what I do" - also paid dividends. The economy was the most important issue to voters in the state, cited by 54 percent of voters. Of those who identified the economy as the issue that mattered most in their vote, 41 percent cast ballots for Romney as opposed to 33 percent for Santorum.

The emphasis on the economy is hardly surprising given the concerns of Ohio voters. A whopping 73 percent of Ohio Republican primary voters were very concerned about the direction of the economy in the next few years. Seventy-four percent indicated gas prices were an important factor in their vote.

Ohio Republican primary voters were clearly drawn by his private sector experience with Bain Capital and the US Olympic Organizing Committee. Sixty-five percent of voters thought working in business better prepares a candidate for the presidency as compared to 27 percent who thought working in government was a better proving ground. Among those voters emphasizing business experience, Romney was preferred 46 percent to 32 percent.

However, in a revelation that could prove troubling down the road, Ohio voters did not think Romney could relate to them. Less than a quarter of voters - 22 percent - indicated Romney was the candidate that best understands the problems of average Americans. This trailed Santorum by eight points, who was named by 34 percent of voters, and just edged out Gingrich and Paul who were named respectively by 19 percent and 15 percent of voters.

Romney takes 5 Super Tuesday states, Santorum nets 3
Super Tuesday sets up long slog to GOP nomination
How Rick Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma
Ron Paul gets boost from crossover voters in Vermont and Virginia
Home state ties key to Gingrich's Georgia victory
Gingrich fights for relevance after Super Tuesday

Too Few Social Conservative Voters

Santorum kept the race close in Ohio by doing exceptionally well among socially conservative voters. Four-in-ten Republican primary voters in the state identified themselves as very conservative on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. These social conservative voters strongly preferred Santorum to Romney 53 percent to 25 percent.

Evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, was the religious group most supportive of Santorum. Evangelical Protestants preferred Santorum over Romney 49 percent to 29 percent. Santorum, though, was defeating among those who shared his faith, losing the Catholic vote to Romney 44 percent to 31 percent.

Santorum's supporters clearly felt that Romney did not have the conservative credentials to be awarded the party's nomination. Among Santorum's supporters, 58 percent said that Romney positions on the issues were not conservative enough. By contrast, an overwhelming proportion of Santorum's supporters - 84 percent - thought his issues on positions were about right.

Even more troubling for Romney is how Santorum's supporters will behave if Romney ultimately wins the Republican nomination. Only 63 percent of those casting ballots for Santorum indicated they would definitely vote for the Republican nominee regardless of who it is. Twenty-six percent of Santorum voters indicated they would probably vote for another Republican nominee, while 6 percent indicated they would not. In a battleground state like Ohio, this could make all the difference come November.

Poll results discussed in this article are based on a National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research. Interviews were conducted with 2728 Republican primary voters as they exited precincts around Ohio. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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

  • 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.

Comments