Mitt Romney capitalized on his Michigan ties and attracted the most conservative voters Tuesday 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 but the most frequent churchgoers, according to the survey for The Associated Press and television networks. McCain ran close to Romney among non-evangelicals while Huckabee lagged badly.
As Romney shifted campaign 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. More than four in 10 Republican primary voters said Romney's ties to Michigan were very or somewhat important to their vote, and 58 percent of them voted for him.
Romney takes Michigan
Michigan's GOP electorate was comparable ideologically — 56 percent conservative, 33 percent moderate and 11 percent liberal — to the turnout last week in New Hampshire's leadoff Republican primary, which McCain won. Romney took Michigan by improving his margin among conservatives and trimming McCain's advantage among everyone else, even managing to run even with McCain among liberals.
One in four Michigan GOP voters called themselves very conservative and Romney won 48 percent of them, to 24 percent for Huckabee and only 11 percent for McCain. McCain ran about even with Romney among the "somewhat conservative" and won 40 percent of moderates to 34 percent for Romney. In New Hampshire, McCain had beaten Romney 44-27 percent among moderates.
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 —23 percent of voters, according to the exit poll. Nearly 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, 72 percent 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.
Economy on Michigan minds
In contrast, on Tuesday 68 percent of GOP primary voters called themselves Republicans, only 21 percent were independents and 7 percent were Democrats. And McCain won far 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 as he beat George W. Bush by 9 points.
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 beat McCain by 21 points among those with a positive view of the economy, while the two ran about even among those who were negative.
Less oxygen for Huckabee
Other pockets of McCain strength included veterans, union members and 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.
Huckabee had an edge over Romney among the one in four voters who said it matters a great deal that a candidate shares their religious beliefs, but that was in sharp contrast to the Iowa caucuses. There, more than a third of GOP caucus-goers said a candidate's religious beliefs matter a great deal and more than half of them voted for Huckabee, a key to his Iowa victory. Tuesday, among voters who cared little about a candidate's religion, McCain and Romney ran about even and Huckabee got just 5 percent.
The 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 1,362 voters and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points; the Democratic poll interviewed 997 voters and the sampling error was 5 percentage points.
With the history Romney and McCain have in Michigan — McCain's 2000 primary win — there was less oxygen for Huckabee. But the ordained Baptist minister hoped that his strongest supporters to date, born-again Christian voters, would turn out along Michigan's conservative western edge to help him finish a strong third or better.