Close races in Ala., Miss. fueled by ideology

(AP) Voters going to the polls for the closely divided GOP primaries in Mississippi and Alabama expressed strong support for their chosen candidate, according to preliminary exit polls. And those polls suggested the ongoing nomination battle would not lead to a major fracture in the party come November.

IDEOLOGY AND SATISFACTION: Half of voters in both states said Mitt Romney’s positions on the issues were generally not conservative enough, while most voters in each state said Newt Gingrich’s positions were ideologically about right. About half in each state called Rick Santorum about right. The quarter who called Santorum “not conservative enough” in Mississippi is the highest so far in exit polls where the question has been asked.

Still, most Mississippi voters said they would be satisfied with Gingrich, Romney or Santorum at the top of the ticket, and in Alabama, 8 in 10 said they would definitely vote for the GOP nominee, no matter who wins in the end.

LOOKING AHEAD TO NOVEMBER: Electability remains a top consideration for voters in the GOP primary, with about 4 in 10 in each state saying it was their chief concern in choosing a candidate. Asked separately which of the four remaining candidates had the best shot at beating President Barack Obama in the fall, a plurality chose Romney.

STRONGLY BEHIND THEIR CHOICES: Majorities of GOP voters in both states said they were strongly behind their chosen candidate. Across last week’s Super Tuesday contests, the share of voters that secure topped 50 percent only in Georgia, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. In Alabama, Romney voters expressed more reservations about their candidate than did Santorum or Gingrich backers; in Mississippi, about half of Romney’s and Santorum’s supporters strongly favored their candidate, while about two-thirds of Gingrich supporters strongly favored him.

RELIGIOUS VALUES: In both states, the vast majority of voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians and about three-quarters said it mattered at least somewhat that a candidate share their religious beliefs. In both Alabama and Mississippi, Santorum held an advantage among those evangelicals who said shared beliefs mattered “a great deal” to their choice. Romney and Gingrich were more competitive among evangelical voters less focused on common religious beliefs.

NO LETUP IN ECONOMIC CONCERN: Economic issues were top of mind for about 6 in 10 voters in both Alabama and Mississippi, but contrary to recent national polls suggesting Americans are shifting toward a more positive outlook on the economy and the government, GOP primary voters in both states are deeply negative. About 8 in 10 Alabama voters said they were very worried about the direction of the economy. And in Mississippi, a similar number were dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working.

TRUST IN AN INTERNATIONAL CRISIS: With tensions rising in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Alabama voters said they preferred Gingrich over his rivals to handle an international crisis. Four in 10 thought Gingrich would do the best job handling one, outpacing Romney and Santorum by double digits.

LATE DECIDERS: About a third of voters in each state said they made up their minds in the final days of the contest, about on par with the share saying so in Georgia and Oklahoma during last week’s Super Tuesday voting. Late breaking voters in Alabama were split between Romney and Santorum; those in Mississippi tilted toward Santorum.

READING THE AIRWAVES: About half of voters in each state said campaign ads were an important factor in their choice, a bit more than said so in Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire or Iowa.

The surveys of voters in Alabama’s and Mississippi’s GOP presidential primaries were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 1,589 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Alabama, and among 1,575 Mississippi voters as they left 30 polling places. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.

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