By ALAN FRAM and JENNIFER AGIESTA, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- White born-again and evangelical Christians were dominating Alabama's and Mississippi's Republican presidential primaries on Tuesday, showing up in numbers unsurpassed by any state where voters have been polled so far this year, according to preliminary results of exit polls of voters.
Around 8 in 10 Mississippians participating in Tuesday's contest were white evangelical or born-again Christians, the largest share measured in any state. Those same voters accounted for nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in Alabama, a proportion reached previously only in Tennessee and Oklahoma.
People in the two Deep South states were also strongly conservative, though not the most conservative to have cast ballots in presidential contests this year. Around 7 in 10 in both states considered themselves conservative, including about 4 in 10 who said they are very conservative – proportions that have been matched or exceeded by several other states.
Around two-thirds in Mississippi and Alabama expressed support for the tea party, making them among the stronger supporters of the conservative, small government movement thus far.
The Alabama and Mississippi contests were being hotly contested by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Texas Rep. Ron Paul put little effort into those races.
The two states voting Tuesday also had unusually high numbers of voters without college degrees, a characteristic that is widely used to measure blue-collar voters, a constituency that the GOP normally dominates in the general election. Six in 10 Mississippians did not have degrees, more than any other state so far, while Alabama had nearly that many.
Nearly 6 in 10 voters in both states said they strongly favored their candidate. That put both near the top of states so far in intensity of support for the contender they back.
More than 8 in 10 in Mississippi said they are unhappy with how the federal government in working, including 4 in 10 saying they are angry. The question was not asked in Alabama.
As in every state so far, the economy was the top issue on peoples' minds, with just over half in each state naming it as their foremost concern. In a question asked only in Alabama, over 9 in 10 expressed worry about the nation's economy, including around 8 in 10 who said they are very concerned.
And around 4 in 10 in both states cited the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in the November election as the main quality they are seeking in a candidate. Given four choices, that has been the top factor named in every state so far.
But that is not the only quality GOP voters crave. The three other options – having a strong moral character, being a true conservative and having the proper experience – when taken together attract more than half of the voters in every state so far.
The surveys of voters in Alabama's and Mississippi's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from 1,024 Alabama voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites, and from 1,102 Mississippi voters as they left 30 polling places. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
AP news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.