WASHINGTON — People favoring a candidate who shares their religious beliefs helped Rick Santorum capture Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in Alabama, exit polls of voters showed. He also won among women and younger voters.
In the contest in neighboring Mississippi, Santorum did well with those caring most strongly about a contender's religion, and those seeking a true conservative and strong moral character in their nominee.
People saying it mattered that they share religious beliefs with their candidates comprised three-quarters or more of voters in both Deep South states. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has repeatedly emphasized the pivotal role Catholicism has played in his life, won 41 percent of their votes in Alabama, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took 31 percent. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was a distant third with 23 percent of their vote.
In Mississippi, Santorum, Gingrich and Romney ran roughly evenly with that group. But among the nearly half of Mississippians saying sharing religion with a candidate was very important, Santorum won 43 percent, well ahead of his two rivals.
In another measure of the role religion was playing, Santorum captured 35 percent of white evangelical Christian or born-again voters in both Alabama and Mississippi, about the same as Gingrich but several percentage points better than Romney. Such voters accounted for 8 in 10 voters in Mississippi, the most in any state this year where voters have been surveyed, and nearly as many in Alabama.
Santorum won support from almost 4 in 10 women in Alabama, several points ahead of Romney. He and Gingrich ran about evenly with men in that state. Santorum did especially strongly with working women there, capturing nearly half of their votes — more than double the number backing either Romney or Gingrich.
Both genders were more closely divided in Mississippi.
Santorum won in both states among voters under age 45, taking 4 in 10 or more of their votes.
Santorum had a huge lead among voters in both states seeking a candidate who is a real conservative, winning just over half of their votes. He also captured more than 6 in 10 of those in each state preferring a candidate with strong moral character, rewarding a contender who spoke unhesitatingly about the importance of family and faith.
Romney did strongly with each state's more moderate voters, capturing nearly 4 in 10 moderates and liberals, but it was obviously not enough. Underscoring his weaknesses with both state's voters, he lost command of several constituencies he has generally been able to count on previously.
While he has often won among voters citing the economy as their top worry, those voters divided about evenly in Mississippi. He won that group only slightly in Alabama.
As with every state so far, the largest group of voters in Alabama and Mississippi selected the economy as the issue that mattered most. Romney, the wealthy former private equity executive, has made repairing the economy a top focus of his campaign and has prevailed among voters concerned about that issue in most states so far in 2012.
In Mississippi, Romney shared a lead with Santorum with college graduates and people from families earning at least $100,000 annually, while he and Gingrich both led among people age 65 and up. In Alabama, he split the lead with Gingrich among college graduates and with both his rivals among regular Republicans. All are groups Romney has typically won.
In both states, Romney and Gingrich each won about a third of people without college degrees, with Romney lagging behind. That characteristic is widely used to measure blue-collar voters, a constituency that the GOP must dominate in the general election to offset Democratic advantages with other groups. Nearly 6 in 10 in both states lacked degrees, ranking both near the top in that category among states that have voted so far.
Santorum ran about evenly with Gingrich in Alabama when voters were asked which candidate best understood the problems of typical Americans, an attempt to measure the empathy that voters see in the contenders. In Mississippi, Gingrich was ahead with that group.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul put little effort into both states' races.
Romney led among the nearly 4 in 10 voters in both states who cited the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in the November election as the main quality they are seeking in a candidate. Given four choices, that has been the top factor named in every state so far.
The surveys of voters in Alabama's and Mississippi's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from 1,589 Alabama voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites, and from 1,665 Mississippi voters as they left 30 polling places. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
AP news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.