Florida GOP voters lift Romney on electability

Voters in Tuesday's Florida Republican primary chose Mitt Romney as the candidate best able to beat President Barack Obama in the fall, preferring electability over ideology in lifting the former Massachusetts governor to a broad victory despite concerns that his issue positions are not conservative enough.

ROMNEY RECAPTURES ELECTABILTY: A majority of Florida GOP voters said Romney is the candidate best able to beat Obama in a general election matchup; only about 3 in 10 said the same of Newt Gingrich. And Romney carried 58 percent of the votes among those seeking a candidate who could defeat the president in November. Gingrich had a strong showing among those seeking a true conservative and a narrow edge over Romney among those seeking an experienced candidate.

CONSERVATIVES THEN AND NOW: In 2008, Romney carried the mantle of conservative alternative to eventual Republican nominee John McCain. This time around, 41 percent of Florida voters said Romney's issue positions are not conservative enough, and very conservative voters were more apt to back Gingrich than the former governor of Massachusetts. Strong supporters of the tea party movement also favored Gingrich over Romney, but Romney carried 50 percent or more among those who support the movement somewhat, are neutral or oppose it.

THE GENDER GAP: Romney won by a wide margin among women after a deeply negative campaign in Florida raising questions about Gingrich's character. Women were more apt than men to say they were influenced by campaign advertising, and were a bit more likely to say a candidate's "strong moral character" was the most important factor in their vote. In the end, only 45 percent of women in the poll report holding a positive opinion of Gingrich as a person, compared with 79 percent who have a positive opinion of Romney.

ECONOMIC CONCERNS TRUMP ALL: About 6 in 10 said the economy was their top issue in choosing a candidate, about half said foreclosures were having a major impact on their community, and 3 in 10 said they were falling behind financially.

SEEKING OTHER CHOICES: Thirty-eight percent of voters said they would like to see someone else run for the nomination, more than said so in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, though the window for another candidate to join the field is nearly closed. Just over half of voters said they would be satisfied if Gingrich or Rick Santorum became the nominee. More, 65 percent, said they'd be satisfied with a Romney candidacy, including 43 percent who voted for Gingrich and 46 percent who backed Santorum.

LATINO VOTERS: A majority of Hispanics in Florida backed Romney, a sharp improvement over his 2008 showing of 14 percent among Hispanic voters. He improved even more among Cuban voters, climbing from 9 percent in 2008 to 57 percent now.

IMMIGRATION: Very few voters called illegal immigration a top consideration in their vote, though the issue was raised frequently as the candidates battled to win this first state with a sizable Latino population. According to the exit poll, GOP primary voters this year were less apt than in 2008 to say illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be deported to the country they came from, and about 4 in 10 feel they should be offered the chance to become citizens.

EARLY BIRD SPECIAL: Florida's voters say they made up their minds early. Just 26 percent say they made a final decision about whom to support in the last few days, compared with 55 percent in South Carolina and 46 percent in New Hampshire and Iowa.

The survey of 2,835 Republican voters was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes results among 2,235 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 40 randomly selected sites in Florida. In addition, 600 who voted early or absentee were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Jan. 23 to 29. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.