In Tuesday’s Illinois primary, Mitt Romney hit a new high in exit polling of voters in this year’s competitive primaries and caucuses: winning 71 percent of voters who see defeating President Barack Obama as the thing they most want from their party’s candidate this November. And in another showing of strength for Romney in Tuesday’s exit poll, nearly three out of five voters saw him as the candidate most likely to defeat the incumbent Democratic president.
Romney demonstrated Tuesday that he may finally be uniting Republicans behind his candidacy in a way that he has not until now: he won 43 percent of conservatives, who accounted for two out of three voters in Tuesday’s contest. Santorum won 39 percent of conservatives in Illinois.
Romney’s winning the conservative segment of the electorate is an indication that Republican voters are starting to coalesce behind his candidacy. In the March 6 Ohio primary, only 35 percent of conservatives voted for Romney and in South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 only 24 percent of conservatives backed him.
Despite Romney’s stronger performance among conservatives in Illinois compared to prior contests, Illinois voters were still split: 43 percent said Romney’s positions on the issues were not conservative enough and 43 percent said his positions were “about right;” another 8 percent said his positions were too conservative.
Going all the way back to the Iowa caucuses, exit polling of voters in this year’s Republican primaries and caucuses has shown that Romney has consistently run better than his rivals among moderate voters.
In the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, for example, Romney bested his rivals by winning 36 percent of moderates, while in Ohio on March 6 Romney won 44 percent of moderates. So too Tuesday in Illinois, where self-identified moderates accounted for nearly three out of ten voters and Romney won nearly half of them, with Santorum winning 26 percent and Paul and Newt Gingrich splitting the rest.
Arguably, a self-described moderate in a Republican primary is closer to the median voter in the November election than is a conservative GOP primary voter. So it may be a hopeful sign for Romney that from the beginning he has run better among moderates than any of his competitors.
A large majority of Tuesday’s voters -- 58 percent -- picked the economy as the issue that mattered most in deciding how they voted and nearly half of those voters favored Romney.
Tuesday’s exit poll also showed that Romney continued to underperform Santorum among the less educated and lower-income voters.
Among those voters who were high school graduates or who’d never graduated from high school, Santorum won 44 percent to Romney’s 33 percent. But among college graduates Romney beat Santorum by 18 points. Among voters with annual family income under $50,000, Santorum edged Romney, 42 percent to 37 percent; but Romney beat Santorum by 13 points among voters with incomes of $50,000 or more and among voters with income of $100,00 or more, Romney beat Santorum by 25 points.
Despite Romney’s immense wealth, 35 percent of Illinois voter said he best understands the problems of ordinary Americans; 29 percent said Santorum best understands their problems.
Evangelical Christian voters favored Santorum over Rooney by 12 points, 47 percent to 35 percent. But nearly three-fifths of Tuesday’s voters were not evangelical Christians and they preferred Romney by a very wide margin, 51 percent to 27 percent.
And despite Santorum being a Catholic, his co-religionists preferred Romney: 48 percent of Catholics backed Romney and only 32 percent supported Santorum.