Economy tops in early Ariz., Mich. exit polls

By Jennifer Agiesta

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 28 2012 8:51 p.m. MST

In this Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 file photo, people enter the Christ Redeemer Church to hear Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, during a campaign stop in Cumming, Ga.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Preliminary results from exit polling in Arizona and Michigan suggest voters in each state made up their minds earlier than voters in previous contests. While voters remain focused on the economy, abortion and immigration are growing in importance.

DEBATES LOSING STEAM: Debates were not an important factor in most voters' decisions in either state. About 36 percent in Michigan and 47 percent in Arizona said debates were an important factor, well off the debate high-point notched in Florida and South Carolina, where more than 6 in 10 called debates leading up to those primaries an important factor in their vote. In Arizona, which Mitt Romney carried with broad advantages nearly across the board, there was little difference in the vote between those who called the debate important and those who said it didn't matter. In Michigan, however, where the race remains close, those who called the debate an important factor tilted toward Romney while those unswayed by it favored Rick Santorum. There were fewer late-deciders in these two states than in any previous contest measured with an exit poll.

ECONOMIC CHALLENGES: About 1 in 3 Michigan voters said they or someone in their household had lost a job in the last three years, while 1 in 5 Arizona voters said their family was falling behind financially. In both states, the economy was most frequently cited as voters' top issue. Romney carried about half of the vote among those who called the economy their top issue in both states.

ABORTION: There has been an increased focus on abortion in the campaign lately, and the preliminary exit poll results show Michigan Republicans picking up on it, with about 1 in 7 calling that their top issue. And there is a sizable gender gap in that result: Among women, about 1 in 5 called it a top issue, about twice as many as among men. Abortion voters in Michigan favored Santorum by a 7-to-1 advantage. Fewer in Arizona were focused on abortion. In both states, about 6 in 10 voters said they believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.

VIEWS OF McCAIN: In Arizona, the home state of Sen. John McCain, the GOP's 2008 nominee for president, about 4 in 10 say they have an unfavorable opinion of him. Romney outpaced Santorum 45 percent to 27 percent among those with a favorable view of McCain, who endorsed Romney early in the contest, while the two were about even among those with an unfavorable opinion.

SEEKING RELIGIOUS COMPATIBILITY: A majority of voters in Michigan said it mattered a great deal or somewhat that a candidate shares their religious beliefs, about the same as in 2008. In Arizona, that figure stood at about half. About 4 in 10 voters in each state describe themselves as born-again or evangelical. Santorum held an edge among evangelical voters in both states.

Early results from the Arizona exit poll are based on interviews with 2,348 Republican primary voters, including 601 absentee or early voters who were interviewed by phone before election day. Michigan results are based on interviews with 2,133 voters, including 412 absentee or early voters. Election day voters come from a random sample of 30 precincts in each state. Both polls have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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