Exit poll shows SC voters made up their minds late

South Carolina's late-deciding voters pushed Newt Gingrich to victory, according to exit polls in the state. The former House speaker's strong performances in the debates leading up to the contest plus a conservative-leaning electorate led to a sizable win for Gingrich.

LATE DECIDERS: A majority of South Carolina Republican voters said they decided on a candidate in the last few days, and they favored Gingrich by a 22-point margin. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney were about even for second among this group.

BROADLY CONSERVATIVE: About 7 in 10 voters in South Carolina said they tilt conservative on most political matters, according to exit polls. That group broke 45 percent for Gingrich to 24 percent for Romney and 19 percent for Santorum. Moderate and liberal voters split between Romney and Gingrich.

RELIGIOUS VOTERS: Almost two-thirds of voters in South Carolina said they are born again or evangelical Christians, and 26 percent said it was deeply important that a candidate share their religious views. Voters in both groups preferred Gingrich to Romney by wide margins.

SEEKING A WINNER: Forty-five percent of voters said the most important trait they sought in a candidate was the ability to beat President Barack Obama in November, and a majority of these voters backed Gingrich. That's a reversal from New Hampshire and Iowa, where voters prioritizing electability backed Romney. Just 38 percent said they would support Romney enthusiastically should he win the nomination.

READING THE RESUME: Two-thirds of South Carolina voters said they had a positive impression of Romney's background investing in and restructuring companies, and Romney held a slim, 40 to 36 percent edge over Gingrich among those voters. However, he carried just 3 percent of the vote among those with a negative view of his time as a venture capitalist.

FACING ECONOMIC CHALLENGES: The share of South Carolina GOP voters who said they are falling behind financially has nearly doubled since 2008, and economic worries are pervasive. Almost 8 in 10 voters said they were very worried about the future of the nation's economy, and 31 percent said someone in their household had lost a job since the start of Obama's term. These voters and those who called the economy their top issue tilted toward Gingrich.

RATING THE GOVERNOR: Two-thirds of South Carolina voters said they approved of Gov. Nikki Haley, who endorsed Romney and campaigned with him throughout the state. Her popularity failed to help Romney, however, as those who approve of her performance in office voted 42 percent for Gingrich to 30 percent for Romney.

These results are from an exit poll conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left their polling places at 35 randomly selected sites in South Carolina. The survey involved interviews with 2,381 Republican primary voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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