As John McCain took a big step toward winning the nomination in Florida, the Republican Party looks increasingly likely to pass the torch to a candidate powered by decidedly un-Republican constituencies: anti-Bush voters, the non-religious, supporters of abortion rights, and social-cultural moderates.
The network exit polls showed patterns of support for and opposition to McCain that are highly worrisome for the conservative and religious wings of the party - patterns that are likely to serve as an incentive to runner-up Mitt Romney to continue the battle. Despite losing the primary to McCain, 31% to 36%, Romney will try to claim, as he has already done, that he is the more legitimately conservative candidate in the race, laying claim to the mantle of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Crucial to McCain's win was his strength among the 25 percent of Republican primary voters who described themselves as "dissatisfied" with the Bush administration, and the 7 percent who are "angry" with the Republican White House. McCain left Romney in the dust, 45-15, among angry voters, and won by 18 points, 43-25, among the dissatisfied.
Conversely, the 19 percent of Republican voters who are "enthusiastic" about Bush backed Romney over McCain 32-27, and those who said they are "satisfied" with Bush backed Romney 37-30
One of McCain's biggest margins, 46-25, over Romney was among the small fraction - 11 percent - of Republicans who call themselves liberal. McCain was, in addition, a solid victor, 40-22, among the 28 percent of Republican primary voters who say they are moderates.
Among the conservative core of the party, which made up fully 62 percent of GOP voters, Romney beat McCain 37-27. Among the substantial 27 percent who call themselves "very conservative," Romney, with 44 percent support, more than doubled McCain's 20 percent, the same percentage as won by Mike Huckabee.
Self-described loyal Republicans, who made up 80 percent of primary voters, backed Romney over McCain by a slight 33-31 margin. But McCain crushed Romney, 41-23, among the remaining 20 percent who call themselves independents.
Columbia political scientist Robert Erikson noted than in contrast to earlier primaries, "clearly there is an increasingly ideological division between McCain and Romney, with Romney gaining among self-professed conservatives. The few liberals evidently love McCain. Even a week ago, the ideological divisions were flat. Voters must be learning their cues."
McCain lost to Romney 27-35 among the 52 percent of pro-life Republican voters who said abortions should be illegal most or all of the time, while decisively winning, 43-26, among the relatively pro-choice 43 percent who said abortions should be legal some of the time or in all cases - in a contest in which all the major Republican candidates, except Mike Huckabee, had shaky anti-abortion credentials.
Ever since the election of 1964, the Republican Party has become the home of a majority of white voters. McCain, however, lost 31-33 to Romney among the 85 percent of the electorate that was white, while dominating, 51-15, among Latino Republicans. McCain, of all the Republican presidential candidates, is most in favor of the adoption of policies providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The Republican Party is the dominant party among white Protestants. In the Florida Republican primary, Protestants made up 42 percent of those casting ballots. Romney beat McCain 37-29 among them.
To prevail, McCain had to win 38-28 among Catholics, many of them Hispanic.
In recent years, one of the major strengths of Republican presidential candidates has been their popularity among religiously observant voters -- those who attend services once a week or more.
McCain, however, lost to Romney among these religiously observant voters, 31 to 29. McCain beat Romney by a solid 42-33 margin among Republicans who go to church just "a few times a year," and he overwhelmed Romney 43-28 among those who said they never attend services at all.
Colby College government department chair L. Sandy Maisel said his analysis of the exit polls "leads me to question where the heart and soul of the GOP is. Romney seems to be splitting the Evangelical vote with Huckabee. He also is not getting all of the vote of those for whom economics is the key issue, splitting that with McCain. McCain is getting a huge portion of the military vote. All of that makes some sense, piece by piece, but if you put it together with the negative view of McCain by the most conservative elements of the party, of Huckabee by traditional, mainstream Republicans, and of Romney by many of those who think he is pandering to the social conservatives to get elected, then you have a mess for them, no matter who wins the nomination."
Brookings demographer William Frey argued that the shape of McCain's victory should help him in future contests:
"McCain has won the constituencies most reflective of voters outside the South: pro-abortion rights voters, minorities, non-churchgoers, and big urban and suburban residents. Most importantly, he won the fast growing counties in the middle of Florida where many Northerners of all backgrounds have recently moved. In short, he has won those Florida segments that are most reflective of the national Republican party, and many independents, not just the conservative South. This should bode well for his strong showing in the big urban coastal states, as well as growing interior western states on Super Tuesday."
Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty pointed out that McCain was supposed to face an uphill struggle in Florida because it holds a "closed" primary limiting participation to registered Republicans: "This was supposed to hurt McCain, but the exit polls show that 17% of the Republican primary voters identify as independents and McCain carried them handily. If this pattern holds for other closed primary states, McCain should benefit."
In addition, McCain's more liberal stance on immigration probably helped him in Florida, producing a strong showing among Latinos, which, McCarty noted, "would bode well for him in the general election should he get the nomination" - although observers point to a distinction in political preferences between Cuban-Americans, who are numerous in Florida, and non-Cubans of Latin America and Caribbean ancestry who make up a majority of Hispanics nationally.
In a setback to Romney, who had campaigned stressing his economic expertise, the 45 percent of voters who said the economy is their top issue backed McCain over Romney, 38-32. "This is a pretty strong repudiation of Romney's campaign on his abilities as an economic manager," McCarty said.
McCain's Florida victory put him "well on his way to the nomination," said Martin Cohen of James Madison University. Looking toward the general election, Cohen noted "it was always said that McCain would be the perfect general election candidate but that he could never win the GOP nomination. Well, thanks to no unifying alternative and more of a willingness this time to kowtow to the core establishment groups....it looks like he will get the nomination....Many in the party are scared to death of McCain but you can't beat something with nothing and the Republicans had nothing this time."
Similarly, the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein was positive about McCain's prospects:
"No question that McCain's strength is among non-traditional Republican constituencies. But keep in mind that he did well among evangelicals, well among Cubans, well among veterans, and that this was still a closed GOP primary. So he has reason to gloat. If [Rudy] Giuliani now drops out [as is expected] and endorses McCain, it leaves Romney in a tough, but given his money, not insurmountable position."
Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, said the Republican exit poll data "confirms what came out in other states, that McCain draws independents and moderates, and, as to the anti-Bush voters and pro-abortion voters, it is clear they see McCain as an insurgent candidate who has distanced himself from the Bush administration as an independent thinker."
Looking as the exit polls for both the Democratic and Republican primaries, Columbia's David F. Weiman noted that Florida is a state ideally suited to the two winners: "Clearly Hillary and to a lesser extent McCain are the choice of the 60+ crowd. And in a state where they represent a striking 40+ percent of the electorate, they do very well." Erikson, in only partial jest, asked, "Is the typical McCain supporter an elderly non-Protestant white social-issue moderate?"
The exit polls were conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for The Associated Press and the television networks.