Why McCain Won

By: by Monika L. McDermott, CBS News Political Consultant
By: by Monika L. McDermott, CBS News Political Consultant

(CBS) John McCain claimed victory in New Hampshire with a late surge of support and the votes of Republican primary voters dissatisfied with the Bush administration. Moderates and independents were a substantial portion of his base.

Mitt Romney's second place finish was fueled by more traditional Republicans - conservatives and those who were positive about the Bush administration.

A 57 percent majority of John McCain's support in the primary came from voters who decided whom to support within the past week and a half. Among Romney supporters, in contrast, 53 percent decided earlier than that.

A majority of late deciders expressed negative feelings towards the Bush administration, perhaps explaining their support for McCain, the Republican Party maverick. Among those who were either angry or dissatisfied with the Bush administration, 40 percent voted for McCain, compared to only 25 percent for Romney.

Romney's support came more from the Republican base, in contrast. Among the 49 percent of primary voters who expressed positive feelings towards the Bush administration, Romney received 36 percent of the vote to 33 percent for McCain.

The contest divides neatly by voter ideology. Thirty-five percent of primary voters described themselves as moderates, and McCain won 44 percent of their vote. Romney, on the other hand, won 38 percent of conservative Republicans, compared to 31 percent for McCain. (Conservatives made up 54 percent of GOP primary voters.)

GOP voters were torn over the most important issue facing the country. Thirty-one percent said the economy, 25 percent the war in Iraq, 22 percent illegal immigration and 18 percent terrorism. McCain handily carried all of these groups with the exception of those who believe illegal immigration to be the most important issue. They gave Romney the edge over McCain by a margin of 53 percent to 20 percent.

Given the choice between cutting taxes and reducing the budget deficit, Republicans chose the budget deficit 53 percent to 44 percent. Among those wanting taxes cut, Romney beat McCain 36 percent to 27 percent, but among those who prefer cutting the deficit, McCain beat Romney 47 percent to 26 percent.

On more personal ground, all of the Republican candidates are viewed positively, with the exception of Ron Paul. Fifty-six percent of GOP primary voters rated Paul unfavorably. All of the other candidates are rated favorably by around 6 in 10 voters. McCain has the most positive ratings at 75 percent.

When voters were asked about a host of important candidate characteristics - electability, leadership and ability to be commander-in-chief - pluralities chose McCain as the top candidate on each.

Forty percent said McCain was the most likely to beat the Democratic candidate in November. Forty-three percent said he was the most qualified as commander-in-chief, and 40 percent chose him as the strongest leader.

In a cautious note for McCain, a substantial portion of his voters supported him with reservations. Forty-five percent of his supporters said they like him, but with reservations. Only 33 percent of Romney's supporters had reservations about him.

Mike Huckabee, the winner in last week's Iowa caucuses finished a distant third in New Hampshire - a much more secular state. The core of his Iowa support was not available to him in the Granite state.

Only 22 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters call themselves evangelicals, compared to 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa. And only 14 percent of primary voters said they cared "a great deal" about whether a candidate shares their religious beliefs, while 36 percent of Iowa caucus attendees felt that way.

Poll results are based on a National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research. Interviews were conducted with 1,520 Republican primary voters as they entered polling stations around the state. The margin of error for the poll is + 2 percentage points.

Monika L. McDermott is assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches and conducts research on voting behavior and public opinion. Before joining the University of Connecticut, McDermott worked in election polling for CBS News and the Los Angeles Times. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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