Within minutes of declaring that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won the GOP primary election in New Hampshire, the Fox News Channel released a detailed set of data from its on-the-ground exit polls.
The central message that emerged from those polls was that Texas Rep. Ron Paul held sway over significant demographic groups within New Hampshire.
Going beyond simple vote totals, exit polls can give campaign strategists — and the news media — a detailed picture of why certain groups voted the way they did.
According to the Fox News exit polls, older voters were Romney’s comfort zone: He won a plurality, 39 percent, of voter support from those over 40. But Paul was the choice of 48 percent of voters under 30 years of age — a percentage more than twice as great as Romney’s.
Paul also narrowly edged out Romney among Granite State voters with household incomes under $50,000. But Romney decisively won the wealthy vote, and did so by greater margins at each successively higher income stratum.
With a 37-percent showing, the Texas congressman also bested Romney among first-time primary voters. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman each polled 22-percent support in that category.
Paul also won the battle for independent voters — or the “undeclared,” in New Hampshire voting parlance — by four percentage points over Romney, 31–27. Romney won a commanding 45 percent of the declared Republican vote. (Those two groups were near-evenly matched at the polls.)
Despite campaign rhetoric from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who positioned Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate,” the former governor trounced Gingrich among voters who identified themselves as “somewhat conservative” (45–12) and “very conservative” (30–18). Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the choice of 29 percent of that latter group.
Santorum, who like Gingrich won’t finish in the top three places, failed to leverage his typical support from social conservatives on family-values issues. Voters who called themselves “very conservative … on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion” split evenly between Romney and Santorum, each polling 27 percent. But among the merely “somewhat conservative” social-issues voters, Santorum’s support crumbled to just 18 percent. (Romney’s grew to 39 percent.)
Even more surprising, self-described “born again or evangelical” Christians narrowly chose Romney, a Mormon, over the outspoken Catholic Santorum, 27 to 26 percent. Romney also won more support than any other candidate from voters who said they “support” the tea party.
Paul tied Romney — at 31 percent — among voters who said the federal budget deficit was the issue that mattered to them most. Santorum won among single-issue voters focused on abortion, but those voters comprised just six percent of the electorate in centrist New Hampshire.
Fifty-nine percent of voters focused largely on finding a candidate who can unseat President Obama chose Romney. But Paul won pluralities of votes from those focused more on finding a “true conservative” or someone with “strong moral character.”
David Martosko is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter.