Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney swept Arizona’s GOP primary with support from a broad cross section of voters who said they were focused on the economy, not immigration or the equally divisive issue of immigration.
Forty-nine percent said the economy was the most important issue in Tuesday’s primary, according to exit poll results; 30 percent said it was the federal deficit.
Only 13 percent of Arizona voters called immigration their most pressing concern, and voters were split almost evenly in thirds when asked if illegal immigrants should be deported, allowed to stay as temporary workers or offered a chance to apply for citizenship.
With victories in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, “it is inevitable the next president of the United States will be … Mitt Romney,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who defeated Romney in Arizona’s 2008 GOP primary.
“This has been a fun ride, and it’s only just beginning,” Romney’s Arizona campaign co-chair, state House Speaker Andy Tobin, told a crowd of supporters gathered at a downtown hotel. “The governor has won the most conservative state in America and won overwhelmingly.”
Romney took 47 percent of the vote. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came in second with 27 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took 16 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul won 8 percent.
Romney’s campaign built a solid base by encouraging supporters to cast early ballots and then solidified the winning effort with Romney’s performance in the Feb. 22 debate in Mesa, Tobin said.
“We had a machine in Arizona,” Tobin said. “With the polls as volatile as they are … locking up early ballots is huge. It gives you a good baseline, a good cover if you have a close race.”
According to exit poll results, Romney captured pluralities of support from voters across sex, race, age education and income.
Santorum was even with Romney only among voters who called themselves “very conservative.” Even among voters who said they strongly support the tea party, Romney and Santorum were about even.
Romney drew overwhelming support from fellow Mormons and had about the same support from Catholics as Santorum, who is Catholic.
Each captured about one-third of the Hispanic vote, with Gingrich and Paul splitting the rest. Gingrich has been considered the favorite for Hispanics on the issue of immigration, as he was the only candidate to support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
But fewer than one in 10 voters were Hispanic, and political watchers said many voters here have grown weary of the rhetoric that has dominated state politics and early debates in the race.
“It is still a key issue,” said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Republican-funded Hispanic Leadership Network. “I think that there will be a lot more discussion in a more rational tone when it comes to the general election,” she said.
This year’s Arizona primary was overshadowed by Michigan’s contest on the same day.
Both states have nearly the same number of delegates, but Arizona’s contest is winner-take-all, giving a candidate not expecting to win the statewide vote little incentive to campaign in Arizona. Arizona will send 29 delegates to the Republican convention. That’s half of the normal allotment and reflects a penalty imposed because the primary is being held before March 6.
Romney was the only candidate to run ads in the state. There was little in-person campaigning by candidates other than right before a debate held in Mesa last week between Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul.
The other candidates didn’t invest time or money in the state because of the Arizona primary’s winner-take-all status and the base of support that Romney had from the state’s Mormon population, said Chris Herstam, a Republican former legislator and political analyst.. “It was a mathematical equation.”
“The only political sizzle that Arizona got in 2012 in the Republican presidential race was its nationally televised debate,” he said.