SAVANNAH, Ga. — Evangelical and tea party conservatives, voters worried about rising gas prices and those disenchanted with the government all helped boost Newt Gingrich to a Super Tuesday win in his former home state of Georgia, according to preliminary exit poll results.
The former House speaker, who bet his campaign's survival on a win in Georgia, dominated Republican rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the state he represented in Congress for 20 years. Still, the early exit poll results showed six in ten voters said Gingrich's Georgia ties were a non-issue.
Roughly seven in ten Georgia voters identified themselves as conservative and nearly half of them voted for Gingrich, who beat both Romney and Santorum by a nearly 2-to-1 margin among those surveyed. Tea party supporters and voters who consider themselves born-again Christians chose Gingrich by a similar margin.
Georgia, the biggest Super Tuesday prize with 76 delegates up for grabs, saw plenty of attention from the candidates in the past week. Gingrich spent most of last week touring the state and returned for last-minute campaigning Tuesday. Santorum was in north Georgia last week and Romney made an appearance over the weekend.
A significant number of voters, about three in ten, said they made up their minds in the last few days, the largest proportion of any primary state since South Carolina voted in late January. However, more than half of voters strongly supported the candidate they ultimately picked, making Georgia one of a few states where a majority looked on the GOP field so favorably. Fewer than one in ten Georgia voters said they made their choice because they disliked the other options.
Gingrich's promise to slash gas prices to $2.50-a-gallon also paid off in Georgia. About eight in 10 Georgians said rising prices at the pump were important in influencing their votes, and nearly half of them ultimately chose Gingrich. Only about a fourth of Georgia voters who called gas prices important supported Romney, and about one in five chose Santorum.
Voters' ill mood toward Washington helped Gingrich as well. About nine in ten Georgia GOP voters said they were angry or dissatisfied with the government, and almost half of them supported Gingrich.
However, about four in ten Georgia voters picked Romney as the most likely Republican to defeat President Barack Obama. Only about three in ten said the same about Gingrich. Still, Romney, who finished third in Georgia during his first presidential campaign in 2008, was considered not conservative enough by about half the state's voters Tuesday.
Overall, Georgia voters widely considered the economy the most important issue in the race, followed by the deficit. Fewer than one in ten cited social issues such as abortion or immigration as their top concern.
Gingrich was the clear favorite among Georgia GOP voters whether they wanted the candidate who was most conservative, most experienced or most likely to defeat President Barack Obama.
However, Gingrich's three marriages and past infidelities may have cost him with voters who ranked character as the most important quality for a candidate. Those character-minded voters, fewer than two in ten overall, chose Santorum over Gingrich by a 5-to-1 margin.
The survey of voters in Georgia's GOP presidential primary was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 1,705 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Georgia.
The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.