WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney drew strength from Republican loyalists and more moderate voters on Tuesday to claim a grueling victory in the GOP presidential primary in his native state of Michigan, an exit poll of voters showed.
Rick Santorum was bolstered by the most ardent conservatives and people whose political views are strongly colored by their religious beliefs, the survey showed. But he failed to win more than a modest margin among blue-collar voters — those without college degrees — despite wooing them with populist, made-in-America fervor and his grandfather's coal miner roots.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, also cruised to an easy victory in Arizona's GOP presidential contest by winning across nearly all categories of age, income, education and ideology, exit poll results showed there.
In both states, the economy was the dominant issue on voters' minds, as it has been in every state to vote so far. And as he has in every state where voters have been polled so far but South Carolina, Romney triumphed decisively among people who named the economy as their chief concern.
In Michigan, Santorum had double-digit leads over Romney among people considering themselves very conservative, strong tea party supporters and born again or evangelical Christians. Nearly 6 in 10 Michigan voters said it was important that they share religious beliefs with their candidate, and this group was backing Santorum over Romney by about 15 percentage points.
Six in 10 Michigan voters Tuesday were Republicans, with the rest allowed to vote under rules opening the party's primary to others as well.
Among those Republicans, Romney was ahead of Santorum by about 10 percentage points. The two men were running neck-and-neck among independents.
About 1 in 10 voters were Democrats and they were backing Santorum by about a 3-1 margin. During the Michigan campaign, Romney accused Santorum of using automated telephone calls to try wooing Democrats to back him, which Santorum answered by saying Romney had sought independent support in earlier state contests.
More than 4 in 10 voters in Michigan said they supported the federal bailout of the auto industry, according to the exit poll. Romney and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, had both said they oppose the 2008 and 2009 influx of federal aid that kept General Motors and Chrysler afloat as both were foundering. The bailout became a top issue in the final days of the Michigan campaign, at a time when the auto industry — the backbone of the state's economy — has revived.
In Arizona, the exit survey showed that voters were about equally divided over whether to deport illegal aliens or let them apply for citizenship. Slightly smaller numbers said they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. as temporary workers.
In 2010, the state enacted one of the country's toughest laws against illegal immigration, a statute that strengthened police powers to questions peoples' immigration status. The Supreme Court has said it will review that law.
The Michigan survey provided a sketch of voters in a state that was among the hardest hit by the recession. Three in 10 said someone in their household had lost a job in the past three years, and nearly 1 in 4 said somebody in their home was a union member.
In both Michigan and Arizona, around half said they strongly favored the candidate they backed. That was below the 63 percent who expressed that enthusiasm in Iowa, the only other state where GOP presidential voters have been asked that question in exit or entrance polls this year.
Amid a campaign that has seen the top GOP contenders spend millions on television ads criticizing each other, only around 1 in 3 Michigan voters said this year's battle for the nomination seemed more negative than past contests in their state. Around 1 in 5 said the same in Arizona.
Given four choices about what they most wanted in a presidential candidate, the largest share in both states said it was most important that a candidate be able to defeat President Barack Obama in November. A majority of voters who felt that way in each state backed Romney on Tuesday.
The surveys of voters in Michigan and Arizona's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 2,133 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Michigan, and among 2,535 Arizona voters as they left 30 polling places. Included were 412 who voted early or absentee in Michigan and 601 in Arizona, who were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Feb. 20-26.
Each survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.