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Romney sweeps most groups in Florida vote

Mitt Romney swept to victory in the Florida primary Tuesday night by winning nearly every income, age, religious, ideological, and ethnic group – falling short only among the one third of Florida Republican voters who called themselves “very conservative” and among the 40 percent who described themselves as white evangelical Christians, although he only narrowly lost among the latter group, according to the network exit polls.

The former Massachusetts governor displayed especially strong appeal to Latino voters – winning 53 percent of them – and to married women, to self-described moderates (winning 62 percent of them), to wealthier voters, and to those who said that the ability to defeat President Obama was the quality that most mattered to them – more so than the candidate’s experience, character or true conservatism. Nearly three out of five the voters who said beating Obama is the top priority voted for Romney.

See full Florida results and exit poll

A different set of voters leads to a different outcome—that’s the short version of what the exit polls reveal about Romney’s victory in Florida, compared to his loss in South Carolina’s primary ten days ago and his victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 10.

Romney’s failure in South Carolina – which seemed worrisome to his campaign only ten days ago --  probably fades into insignificance now that strategists are turning toward November and to electorates that in most of the battleground states will more closely resemble those in New Hampshire and Florida than in the Palmetto State.

In a close general election in November, New Hampshire and Florida are likely to be hotly contested, while South Carolina will be a safe Republican state, so the New Hampshire and Florida data may contain more valuable insights for the fall contest. And the Florida electorate in Tuesday’s primary – more than 1.5 million voters – was far larger than the electorates in all the previous contests -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- combined.

David Gregory analyzes the results of the Florida primary and what effect it will have on the GOP race moving forward.

With America still emerging from a recession and with income inequality a Democratic theme for the fall, voters’ income may matter greatly. Both Romney and Newt Gingrich, of course, are wealthy men, but Romney is far wealthier. If he’s the GOP nominee, will he be able to appeal to the tens of millions of American voters in the November election who’ll have incomes of less than $50,000 a year?

In Florida, about a third of GOP primary voters Tuesday reported that they had total family income of under $50,000 -- and Romney won 42 percent of such voters, beating Gingrich by ten points.

That compares to South Carolina’s primary electorate: 36 percent of voters reported annual incomes of under $50,000, and Romney was relatively weak with that group in South Carolina, winning only 25 percent of them compared to Gingrich who won 40 percent of them.

Romney rebounds with a victory in Florida

But in the New Hampshire primary, in which more than one in four voters said their families had incomes of $50,000 or less, Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas each won 31 percent of the lower-income voters, while Gingrich won only one out of every ten.

Where Gingrich beat Romney among both men and women in South Carolina’s primary, Romney had a big advantage among women voters in Florida: beating him by more than 20 percentage points.

Next, consider ideology and partisan identification.

Romney continues to have a problem appealing to self-described conservative voters – in Florida, Romney lagged 14 points behind Gingrich among very conservative voters Tuesday and four out of ten voters said Romney’s views were not conservative enough.

Likewise in South Carolina, Romney won fewer than one out of every five voters who categorized themselves as “very conservative,” while in New Hampshire Romney won 26 percent of that group.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist talks with Rachel Maddow and an MSNBC panel about Mitt Romney's Florida primary win and the Republican primary going forward.

Of course, a Republican strategy for victory in November will need to focus on those voters who don’t necessarily define themselves as “conservative.” In November, there will be many independents in states such as Florida and New Hampshire whom the Republican nominee will need to successfully woo. The GOP nominee will need to do what George W. Bush did in New Hampshire in 2000, when he won the state by 1.3 percentage points over Al Gore: persuade the centrist and non-ideological voters to trust him, without alienating too many conservatives.

Can the GOP nominee attract independents and middle-of-the-road voters? In South Carolina one of four voters described himself as independent and Romney and Gingrich ran just about even among them.  But in the New Hampshire primary – in which independent voters could request a Republican ballot and vote in the GOP primary —independents accounted for nearly half of all voters. Romney and Paul each won about 30 percent of independents, compared to only 8 percent of independents who voted for Gingrich.

But in Florida, 18 percent of the electorate Tuesday called themselves independents. Romney won 41 percent of them, while Gingrich won 27 percent.

Another crucial group in November will be those born in 1947 or earlier. There will be more of the gray-haired James Taylor and Kingston Trio fans than the Rock the Vote demographic in November’s electorate. In 2008, more than twice as many votes were cast by people aged 65 and older than by people age 18 to 24. Seventy percent of Americans age 65 and older voted while only 49 percent of 18 to 24 year olds voted.

The Florida electorate Tuesday was a good test run: 36 percent of voters were age 65 and older and Romney won 51 percent of those voters. He trailed Gingrich among the older voters in South Carolina (as his did among other age groups) but had beaten him among older New Hampshire voters.

One should not read too much into Tuesday outcome -- nor should one project a sample of the Republican electorate onto what will be a far bigger national electorate in November. Tuesday's Florida GOP electorate skewed wealthier than the national population, with 31 percent reporting family incomes of $100,000 or more.

And of course no candidate is ideal: 38 percent of Tuesday’s voters said they would like to see someone else run for the Republican nomination. But the time for a late starter has passed. Republicans will go into battle with the candidate they have – and increasingly it is looking like that will be Romney.