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Behind McCain's S.C. Win

Arizona Sen. John McCain won the South Carolina GOP primary, losing only the party's most conservative voters and doing significantly better among evangelicals than he did in Iowa.

McCain's victory gives his campaign a boost headed into the Florida primary on Jan. 29, and is a sweet turn for the senator whose presidential bid eight years ago fizzled in the Palmetto state.

In 2000, McCain's bid faltered when he lost Republicans by more than 2 to 1 to George W. Bush. This year, he ran evenly with runner-up former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee among party regulars, and won by a large margin among independents, as he did in New Hampshire. Eight in 10 South Carolina voters were Republicans, making his improvement in this core group particularly important.

Six in 10 GOP primary voters were evangelical Christians (same as in Iowa), but while only 10 percent of evangelicals in Iowa supported McCain, 27 percent voted for him in South Carolina. (He also got 28 percent among evangelicals in New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was his main rival.)

McCain also won by better than 2 to 1 among moderates and liberals, and split "somewhat conservative" voters (32 percent for McCain, 30 percent for Huckabee). About a third of voters described themselves as "very conservative," and they broke for Huckabee by better than 2 to 1, not quite enough to overcome McCain's advantage in the less conservative groups.

One factor working in McCain's favor was that 43 percent of voters said he is the most electable Republican candidate. Far fewer, 23 percent, said Huckabee has the best shot at beating the Democratic nominee; 19 percent said so about Romney.

Just 6 percent called electability the single most important candidate quality, but 42 percent of these voters opted for McCain, only 15 percent for Huckabee. More than four in 10 said the top attribute was "shares my values," about a quarter said candor and a quarter experience. Huckabee dominated among "values voters," McCain among those seeking a solid resume.

A quarter of the electorate had served in the military, and they broke for McCain by a narrow seven percentage points. In 2000, 48 percent of veterans voted for McCain, 47 percent for Bush.

The economy was the top issue, according to the network exit poll conducted at 35 randomly-selected precincts. Next on the list was immigration, followed by Iraq and terrorism. Economy voters divided evenly between McCain and Huckabee.

The table below compares the vastly different GOP electorates in South Carolina and New Hampshire, both won by Sen. McCain. Please see previous election day Trail posts on the South Carolina contest and the Nevada caucuses (Democrats, Republicans).

Two States, Two GOP Wings, Same Winner
New Hampshire South Carolina
2008 vote for McCain 37 33
Republican 61 80
Independent 37 18
Evangelical Christian 23 60
Very conservative 21 34
Moderate/liberal 45 31
Abortion legal in all/most cases 52 28
Abortion illegal in all/most cases 44 70
Positive towards Bush administration 50 69
Negative towards Bush administration 49 30

By Jennifer Agiesta  |  January 19, 2008; 10:44 PM ET
 
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