ANALYSIS: Doubts on Romney’s Conservatism Help Santorum in the South

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Voters unimpressed with Mitt Romney’s conservative credentials split between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in Alabama and Mississippi, leaning enough toward Santorum to give him a pair of wins -- but leaving Romney room for a respectable tally this far from his Belmont, Mass., estate.

Half the voters in both Southern primaries branded Romney as “not conservative enough.” If they’d only had one place to go, it might’ve been a Santorum or Gingrich romp. Instead, those voters divided between the two, by 44-39 percent in Alabama, 42-39 percent in Mississippi.

That was enough for Santorum to win in both states -- but perhaps by closer margins than he may have wanted, given his efforts to cement the evangelical and very conservative segments of the GOP vote. This was their home base.

If Gingrich took some of Santorum’s votes, Santorum lost them. A week earlier, in Tennessee, he thrashed Gingrich among voters who doubted Romney’s conservatism, 53-29 percent. This Tuesday, wins aside, the Santorum alternative lost some of that steam.

Alabama and Mississippi voters, indeed, looked highly desirous of a cloned candidate built on the most appealing aspects of each of the top three contenders. (Ron Paul, not so much.) For Santorum there was very broad support among voters looking for the “true conservative” and for “strong moral character” in a candidate, the latter an especially poor group for Gingrich.

Gingrich, in turn, won voters in both states focused on the candidate with the best experience to serve as president; experience, as in previous states, was weak for Santorum. Gingrich also ran well among voters who selected the federal budget deficit as the top issue in their vote.

Romney, meanwhile, earned his customarily high scores among the sizable number of voters in both states who were focused chiefly on the candidate best able to win in November. He again won wealthier voters. And he won non-evangelicals and moderates by wide enough margins to compensate, at least somewhat, for their small size.

But neither of these states was built for a Michigan-born Mormon candidate from Massachusetts. A vast 83 percent of GOP voters in Mississippi identified themselves as evangelicals, more than in any GOP primary this year or in 2008 alike. Thirty-one percent of them voted for Romney, about his average among evangelicals this year, though more than in other Southern states.

The rest divided between Santorum and Gingrich, 35-30 percent, rather than coalescing behind one or the other, as they did in Georgia and South Carolina for Gingrich; and Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan for Santorum. Romney’s 13- and 15-point leads vs. Gingrich and Santorum among non-evangelicals were enough to put him in the hunt in Mississippi.

Gingrich, for his part, did notably less well with women than men in both these states, a gender gap that has not been consistently present. Gingrich won men in Alabama, with 35 percent support, but did poorly enough with women (24 percent) for Santorum to take the state. In Mississippi, Gingrich trailed Romney and Santorum among women by 7 and 8 points, respectively. The thrice-married Gingrich looked especially weak among married women.

For Santorum, it was the religiously inspired vote that loomed large. Forty-five percent of Alabama voters said it mattered a great deal that they support a candidate who shares their religious beliefs; this group went overwhelmingly to Santorum, giving him 47 percent of their votes. In Mississippi, the group was equally large, and Santorum won 42 percent.

The challenge for Santorum is his comparatively weak results outside his core of very conservative, evangelical, religion-focused, anti-abortion voters. This Tuesday those groups were abundant. In Illinois next Tuesday, by contrast, 2008 exit poll data suggest evangelicals may be only half as numerous there as they were in Alabama and Mississippi.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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