Results of an exit poll in Virginia showed that Texas Congressman Ron Paul fared well among moderates and independents, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a front-runner who had the support of the state’s GOP establishment, including Gov. Bob McDonnell and U.S. House Minority leader Eric Cantor.
Paul and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, were the only candidates competing for Virginia’s 46 delegates after Newt Gingrich and Ron Santorum failed to submit the required 10,000 voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Virginia does not register voters by party, so the primary was open to all voters. Sixty-three percent identified themselves as Republicans, and about seven in 10 of that group voted for Romney. Approximately one-third said they were independent or something else, and nearly two-thirds of them voted for Paul.
The breakdown was similar among the nearly two-thirds who labeled themselves conservatives. Romney got the support of more than six in 10 conservatives, while the vote was evenly split among the approximately one-third who considered themselves moderate or liberal.
Six in 10 voters said they support the tea party, and Romney got 60 percent of that vote. He received similar support among the slightly less than half who identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Romney’s strongest showing was among the 44 percent who believe beating Obama is the most important quality. More than eight in 10 voters in that group voted for Romney. The second most important quality was strong moral character, cited by about a fifth of voters. Paul got the vote of two-thirds of that group.
Nearly half of Virginia voters were strongly behind their candidate. Romney fared better among that group while Paul was strong among the 13 percent who voted for a candidate based on dislike of the opponent.
One-third of the voters said they would have voted for one of the candidates who was not on the ballot had they had the chance, with Santorum receiving slightly more support than Gingrich. Romney fared best among the Gingrich supporters, while the vote was about even among the Santorum backers.
Larry Chalkley, a 71-year-old retired machinist in heavily Republican Chesterfield County, voted for Romney but said he likes Gingrich and would have liked to have seen all the candidates on Virginia’s ballot. He said he believes Paul is too far outside the mainstream, but he would support anyone other than Obama in November.
“As it is, the whole country’s going down the tubes,” Chalkey said. “I think he’s been the worst president since Jimmy Carter.”
A narrow majority of voters called the economy their top issue in choosing a candidate, and more than six in 10 voters from that group voted for Romney. Nearly a third cited the federal budget deficit, and Romney received similar support among that group.
Joshua Miles, a 29-year-old dental student and father of three who voted for Romney at his suburban Richmond precinct, said rising tuition and interest rates had him worrying about his economic future.
“Is it affecting me now? Probably not so much because I haven’t had to start paying it back yet, but I think about it all the time and how I’m going to do it,” Miles said.
Abortion and illegal immigration were each cited as the top issue by less than 10 percent of voters. About half of the voters said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, and more than six in 10 of that group supported Romney.
Approximately seven in 10 voters said gas prices were an important consideration in their vote, and about two-thirds of them voted for Romney.
More than 90 percent were white, seven in 10 were 45 or older and nearly six in 10 were college graduates.
The exit poll of 1,044 Virginia Republican primary voters was conducted for AP by Edison Research in a random sample of 20 precincts statewide. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.