WASHINGTON — Women failed to vote for Newt Gingrich Tuesday and helped fuel former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's triumph in Florida's Republican presidential primary, according to data from an exit poll of voters.
Romney also drew strength from Florida's legion of older voters, Hispanics and two staples among GOP voters in presidential contests so far — those looking for someone to defeat President Barack Obama and people focused on the still flagging economy.
While Romney bested the former House speaker narrowly among men, he strongly outdistanced him among women, winning around five of their votes for every three that went to Gingrich. In the three states in which Republicans had already voted for their presidential nominee — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — there was relatively little difference in how the sexes divided their votes between the two rivals.
Romney's triumph came after a campaign in Florida in which he and his supporters outspent Gingrich on television ads by nearly a 5-1 margin, with many of the ads raising attacking the former speaker's character. None mentioned Gingrich's three marriages or the charges by his second wife, Marianne, that he asked permission for an open marriage before they were divorced, an allegation Gingrich has denied.
Overall, Romney's margin over Gingrich in Tuesday's voting held among women across every category of education and income.
Some of the data from Tuesday's exit poll suggested that many women's votes were influenced more by a personal distaste for Gingrich than by liking Romney. Asked their views of Gingrich as a person, men said they generally viewed him favorably by just under a 2-1 margin, but women were about evenly divided. In contrast, women expressed stronger positive feelings about Romney as a person than men did, but the difference between them was minor.
Among all voters on Tuesday, just over half expressed favorable views of Gingrich personally, compared to about three-quarters who said the same about Romney.
Men divided about evenly between Gingrich and Romney over which candidate best understood average Americans' problems, but women leaned toward Romney. In addition, asked if they would be satisfied if Gingrich won the GOP nomination, men said yes by nearly a 6-4 margin while women were closely split.
About 1 in 7 GOP primary voters Tuesday was Hispanic, and that group preferred Romney by almost 2-1. About a third of Tuesday's voters were age 65 or up — reflecting the state's status as a retirement haven — and they gave Romney almost a 5-3 edge, better than he did with younger age groups.
The exit poll also showed Romney did better with less conservative people than with those considering themselves very conservative.
Gingrich prevailed among people who said they are very conservative, while Romney had a decisive edge among Florida GOP voters who are somewhat conservative, moderate or liberal. The two candidates split tea party supporters about evenly, while Romney won strongly among all others.
Around 6 in 10 Florida GOP voters said the economy was their biggest issue. They preferred Romney by about 20 percentage points.
Though Romney won among every income category overall, he did more strongly among higher-income voters than with those on the lower economic rungs.
Gingrich managed to split the one-quarter of voters with Romney who said they are falling behind economically. And Gingrich did better among the half of voters who said home foreclosures are a major problem in their communities than he did among those who said it wasn't so bad.
Early voters also gave Romney more of an edge. Those in the poll who voted early or by absentee ballot backed Romney by around a 2-1 majority, a stronger edge than he won among those at the polling places on Tuesday. Before Tuesday's voting, analysts thought Gingrich might pick up some late momentum in Florida because of his victory in South Carolina's Jan. 21 GOP primary.
The survey of 2,835 voters Republican voters was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary 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.
Associated Press global polling director Trevor Tompson and news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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