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If Romney pulls off a win in one of the Southern states tonight, it will naturally raise questions about whether Santorum and Gingrich split the conservative vote. The early exit poll data here may be instructive.
In Alabama, where the initial results look best for Santorum, self-described conservatives voted 37 percent for Santorum, 33 percent for Gingrich, and 25 percent for Romney. “Very conservative” voters (36 percent of the electorate) went 41 percent for Santorum, 35 percent for Gingrich, and 19 percent for Romney. The 49 percent plurality of Alabama Republicans who thought Romney wasn’t conservative enough voted 44 percent for Santorum, 37 percent for Gingrich, and 8 percent for Romney (7 percent voted for Paul).
In Mississippi, where the early numbers look best for Romney, conservatives split 33 percent to 32 percent between Santorum and Gingrich. Very conservative voters — a 42 percent plurality of the state’s GOP primary electorate — split evenly between Santorum and Gingrich at 35 percent apiece. The 50 percent of voters who thought Romney’s positions weren’t conservative enough divided evenly between Santorum and Gingrich, at 39 percent each.
If these numbers hold up, it suggests that conservatives mostly coalesced around one candidate in Alabama and divided in Mississippi. We’ll see if the data changes as the results trickle in.