WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum turned in his most impressive performance yet with conservative, blue-collar and religious voters as he rode to triumph Saturday in Louisiana's Republican presidential primary, capturing robust support from people across the board, according to an exit poll of voters.
Highlighting his strength, the former Pennsylvania senator bested Mitt Romney for the first time among those calling the economy the campaign's dominant issue. As usual this year, more voters named the economy as their top concern than any other problem and 46 percent of them said Santorum was their candidate – an embarrassment for Romney, the former venture capitalist who has claimed he knows best how to create jobs.
Romney retained his usual advantage among voters whose most prized characteristic in a GOP candidate is finding someone who can defeat President Barack Obama this fall. But illustrating the narrowness of the former Massachusetts governor's appeal in the state, 53 percent of his Louisiana voters were from families earning at least $100,000 a year, the first time this year that more than half of any presidential hopeful's support has come from such high earners.
Overall, the results painted Louisiana as a state whose Republicans are tailor-made for Santorum, with large numbers of conservative and religiously motivated voters.
Santorum won about half of both conservatives and tea party supporters, his high water marks with both groups in 2012. He did slightly better among those without college degrees, another personal best with that oft-used measure of blue-collar voters.
The devoutly and openly religious Santorum also got almost 6 in 10 votes from white born-again and evangelical voters and from those saying it is important that they share religious beliefs with their candidate – his best showings of the year with two groups that are among his bedrock voters.
Santorum, a Catholic himself, won among Catholics for the first time. Analysts have ascribed their prior coolness toward him to their tendency to consider other issues more important than religious identity. He also broke new ground for himself by prevailing among city voters.
In another area where he did slightly better than previously, 42 percent Saturday cited Santorum as the candidate who best understands the typical American, about doubling the number citing Romney for that quality.
Only 1 in 5 Louisiana voters said they were influenced by a Romney aide's comment likening his campaign's tactics to an Etch A Sketch toy. Yet those who said Eric Fehrnstrom's remark did play an important role in their choice leaned toward Santorum over Romney by nearly 3-1.
Even so, Santorum led by double digits among those saying the comment was not significant for them.
Asked whether Romney's positions in the GOP primary might make him too conservative for more moderate voters in November's general election, Fehrnstrom had said the campaign could start over in the fall, saying, "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up."
Romney's opponents said the remark shows he shifts his views too easily.
The few groups where Romney led included people earning over $200,000 a year and those caring little about sharing religious beliefs with their presidential favorite.
Even as some national Republican leaders have started calling for Romney's rivals to drop out and begin uniting the party for the fall campaign, only about 1 in 4 Louisianans said they want the GOP contest to end quickly, even if their contender loses. Seven in 10 said they were happy for the party's internal battle to continue as long as their candidate wins.
The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Louisiana. The survey involved interviews with 1,499 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.