Mitt Romney capitalized on his Michigan ties Tuesday — especially among voters who made up their minds in the past week — while John McCain found far fewer Republican primary votes among the Democrats and independents who keyed his victory here eight years ago, an exit poll showed.
Romney also neutralized Mike Huckabee's strength among religious voters, running even with the Iowa caucuses champ among white evangelicals and beating him among all frequent churchgoers except those who attend services more than once a week, according to the survey for The Associated Press and television networks. McCain ran even with Romney among non-evangelicals while Huckabee lagged badly.
As Romney shifted resources out of South Carolina and into Michigan last week, the former Massachusetts governor had emphasized his family ties to this state. His father, George, had headed American Motors Corp. and was a three-term governor in the 1960s.
Apparently it worked. Four in 10 Republican primary voters said Romney's ties to Michigan were very or somewhat important to their vote, and more than half of them voted for him. And among those who said they finally made their voting decision in the past week and who called Romney's family ties important — nearly half the GOP primary electorate — about 60 percent voted for Romney.
McCain stayed competitive with backing from moderates, voters enamored with his leadership qualities, and those angry about the Bush administration.
Democratic primary barely contested
Meanwhile, in Michigan's Democratic primary, Barack Obama and John Edwards withdrew from the ballot because of questions about whether the state's delegates would be seated at the Democratic convention. Only a campaign to vote "uncommitted" stood in Hillary Rodham Clinton's way. Clinton, who would become the nation's first female president, won particularly strong support among women and older voters.
The Democratic primary was the first this nomination season with a sizable number of blacks — about one in five voters, according to the exit poll. Seven in 10 of them voted for "uncommitted" in an apparent show of support for Obama, who hopes to become the nation's first black president.
Asked for whom they would have voted if Obama and Edwards had joined Clinton and others on the ballot, three in four who voted "uncommitted" picked Obama.
Although hardly contested, the Democratic primary apparently helped prevent crossover vote from aiding McCain as much as he would have liked in the Republican contest.
Michigan has open primaries and no registration by party, so voters choose on primary day which partisan contest to vote in. In 2000 with no Democratic race but for an eventual blowout in caucuses three weeks later, many Democrats voted in the Republican primary — totaling 17 percent of that electorate, more than in any other GOP primary exit poll since at least 1992. Another 35 percent that year were independents, leaving Republicans in the minority in their own primary.
In contrast, on Tuesday two-thirds of GOP primary voters called themselves Republicans, a quarter were independents and fewer than one in 10 were Democrats. And McCain won smaller shares of independents and Democrats this time, with a larger field to split their vote than in 2000. He won two-thirds of independents in 2000 but little more than a third Tuesday, and he got only half as much of the shrunken Democratic vote as he did eight years ago, when he carried a whopping 82 percent of Democrats.
Economy, jobs weigh on minds
Michigan's weak economy, dragged down by the struggling auto industry, weighed on GOP voters' minds. The state's jobless rate of 7.4 percent is the nation's highest.
Given four choices, half of Michigan Republican primary voters picked the economy as the most important issue facing the nation, compared to just 26 percent in the Iowa GOP caucuses and 31 percent in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
Economy voters narrowly favored Romney in Michigan. Among the other choices, one in five picked Iraq, and McCain held an advantage among them. One in seven said immigration and one in 10 called terrorism the country's most important issue.
On a different question, almost no Michigan GOP voters rated the nation's economy excellent and three in 10 called it good — about 20 points lower than in the New Hampshire Republican primary. Romney ran strongly among those with a positive view of the economy, while McCain ran at least even with him among those who were negative.
Other pockets of McCain strength included Republican voters who favor legalized abortion, oppose the war in Iraq and place higher priority on deficit reduction than cutting taxes. Romney ran strong among tax-cutters.
The preliminary results are from exit polls Tuesday in 40 precincts around Michigan for the AP and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. The Republican primary survey interviewed 1,269 voters and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points; the Democratic poll interviewed 949 voters and sampling error was 5 percentage points.