Five takeaways from Super Tuesday

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Super Tuesday - Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum
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(CBS News) Super Tuesday is the biggest day on the Republican primary calendar. Ten states were contested across the country from Massachusetts to Alaska, battling for 419 delegates. When the dust finally settled, we did not learn who the Republican nominee would be, but we did gain five valuable insights about the race moving forward.

The race is on

On the surface, it appears that Mitt Romney was the big winner on Super Tuesday. He won six of ten states, defeating his rivals in Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, Alaska, and in the crucial race of Ohio. According to CBS News' delegate count, Romney's delegate lead over his chief rivals - Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich - widened substantially, from 185 delegates for Romney to 65 delegates for Santorum and 36 delegates for Gingrich before Super Tuesday to 361 delegates for Romney to 112 delegates for Santorum and 80 delegates for Gingrich when the day was done.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the race is very much alive. Romney is little more than a third of the way to the 1144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. He has struggled mightily in the South and the Midwest, losing Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee by sizable margins on Tuesday and eking out a win in Ohio. This comes on the heels of losses in Minnesota, Colorado, South Carolina, and Iowa and a narrow win in his home state of Michigan.

Worse, the calendar sets up badly for Romney in the coming weeks, bringing contests in regions where Romney has been vulnerable. Kansas will hold caucuses on March 10, followed by primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on March 13. Missouri, which held a non-binding primary won by Santorum last month, is up next, holding caucuses to determine their delegate allocation on March 20. If Romney does poorly in these states, the race could turn quickly, as he becomes more vulnerable to unfavorable media coverage and diminishing campaign contributions.

Lack of enthusiasm with all the candidates

Super Tuesday revealed a considerable lack of enthusiasm with the entire Republican field of candidates. Voter turnout was down considerably from 2008 across many of the primary states, despite the closeness of the race. There were approximately 225,000 fewer voters casting ballots in the Virginia primary, 140,000 fewer voters in the Massachusetts primary, 60,000 fewer voters in the Oklahoma primary, 50,000 fewer voters casting ballots in the Georgia primary, and 3,000 fewer voters in the Tennessee primary. Only the Vermont and Ohio primaries showed increases in turnout.

Among those who did cast ballots, at least four-in-10 voters in every primary contested Tuesday had concerns about their choice for the Republican presidential nomination, according to CBS News exit polls. In Vermont, 57 percent of voters had reservations about their preferred candidate or opted for their choice because they disliked the other candidates more. A majority of voters had doubts about their choices in Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee. The numbers were down slightly in two of the candidates home states, but still 44 percent had reservations about their choice in Romney's home state of Massachusetts and 43 percent had reservations in Gingrich's home state of Georgia.

Ideological divide among voters

The exit polls on Super Tuesday illustrated vividly the chasm that exists between conservative voters in the Republican Party primaries. Very conservative voters consistently backed Santorum, or, in the case of Georgia, Gingrich. Santorum topped Romney among very conservative voters by 28 points in Tennessee, 20 points in Oklahoma, 19 points in Ohio, and a point in Vermont, while Gingrich bested Romney among very conservative voters by 33 points in Georgia. Only in Romney's home state of Massachusetts did very conservative voters side with Romney.

On the other hand, somewhat conservative voters consistently supported Romney. Somewhat conservative voters preferred Romney over Santorum by 62 points in Massachusetts, by 29 points in Vermont, by 6 points in Ohio and by 4 points in Tennessee. The only state that Romney lost among somewhat conservative voters, other than Gingrich's home state of Georgia, was Oklahoma and by a mere 3 points.

The winner of each primary on Super Tuesday simply came down to which group outnumbered the other. When there were a greater proportion of very conservative voters in the state's primary, such as in Oklahoma, Tennesse, and Georgia, then Santorum or Gingrich emerged victorious. On the other hand, when there were fewer very conservative voters than somewhat conservative voters in the state's primary, such as in Ohio, Massachusetts and Vermont, then Romney won.

A battle between pragmatism and principles

In state after state, this ideological divide seemingly results from different priorities. Very conservative voters are more interested in the moral character and conservative credentials of the candidates, while somewhat conservative voters prioritize electability and experience. Take for example, the hotly contested race in Ohio: Cery conservative voters preferred moral character/conservatism to electability/experience 53 percent to 44 percent, while somewhat conservative voters preferred electability/experience to moral character/conservatism 60 percent to 36 percent.

These differing priorities manifest themselves in each side's willingness to comprise on key issues. Abortion is a case in point. In most of the primary states contested on Tuesday, two to three times more voters identifying themselves as very conservative believed abortion should be illegal in all circumstances than those identifying themselves as somewhat conservative. Conversely, many more voters identifying themselves as somewhat conservative believed abortion should be legal in some circumstances than their very conservative counterparts.

Santorum and Gingrich are playing each other's spoiler

Super Tuesday highlighted the impact of having two candidates - Santorum and Gingrich - who appeal to very conservative voters in the race. By splitting the ballots of very conservative voters in each state, they are not only depressing each other's delegate count, but enabling Romney to win states that he might otherwise have lost. This is costing both Santorum and Gingrich precious media coverage and money, and diminishing both of their chances of emerging victorious in the Republican nomination race.

Without the other in the race, either Santorum or Gingrich could have added Ohio and Alaska to the states they won on Tuesday - Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Dakota. For example, Gingrich secured 15 percent of the vote in Ohio, where Santorum lost to Romney by a single percentage point. Similarly, in Alaska, where Santorum lost by 3 percentage points, Gingrich won the support of 14 percent of caucus goers. And this says nothing of Virginia, a conservative state where neither Santorum or Gingrich managed to even get on the primary ballot. If Romney ultimately wins the nomination, the conservative wing of the Republican Party will rue a lost opportunity of controlling the fate of the 2012 nomination race and, quite possibly, the future direction of the Republican Party.

Super Tuesday sets up long slog to GOP nomination

Poll results discussed in this article are based on National Election Pool exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research. Interviews were conducted with Republican primary voters as they exited precincts in each of the primary states on Super Tuesday. The margin of error for each of the state exit polls is +/-4 percentage points.

  • 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.