RENO, Nev. (AP) — In his bid to take Nevada, Mitt Romney made inroads among several voting groups that had been solidly behind President Barack Obama.
The Republican challenger claimed majority support among independents and even attracted a few black and Hispanic voters over to his ticket — but it didn't matter.
Romney lost Nevada in large part because of a double-digit gender gap that saw a majority of women voters break Democratic.
Exit poll results show the president took a comfortable lead among women in Nevada, highlighting a problem that some GOP strategists have been urging their party to address.
"Democrats were very successful at painting Republicans as anti-women," said Robin Reedy, chief of staff to former-Gov. Jim Gibbons, on KRNV-TV's "Nevada Newsmakers."
"We, as a state, and a state party, did not do our job very well," she said Wednesday.
Voters' attitudes about abortion also show the divide. Overall, Nevada voters oppose outlawing abortion by as much as a 2-to-1 margin, according to exit polling conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research. Only 1 in 10 said it should be outlawed in all cases. And 2 in 10 said it should be outlawed in most cases.
Democrats criticized Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, over the issue, saying they supported plans to make abortion illegal. And nationally, Republicans lost traction as high-profile candidates made comments that put them outside of the mainstream, including a Senate candidate in Indiana who said pregnancy as a result of rape was "something God intended to happen."
The news in Nevada, however, wasn't all bad.
Romney performed better than Republican Sen. John McCain did in 2008 on a number of fronts.
The former Massachusetts governor drew support from independents and third party voters, turning the table on an area that Obama had on his side four years ago, according to exit polling.
Romney failed to carry Washoe County but lost it by less than 7,000 votes, compared with the 23,000-vote edge Obama commanded in becoming the first Democrat since 1964 to win in the Reno-Sparks area.
And though Obama maintained his overwhelming lead among black and Hispanic voters, Romney did better with those groups than McCain. His increased support, however, came from men in those demographics. Romney's showing among women in those groups was almost identical to McCain's.
The gender gap is proving too significant to overcome. While blacks and Hispanics combine to make up about one-fourth of Nevada voters, women represent about half of the people at the polls — and they've been voting Democrat in statewide races since 2004, when exit polls showed about 6 of 10 women backing John Kerry.
The divide is most glaring among women younger than 30 who supported Obama by a 2-to-1 margin over Romney.
The continuing pattern has some Republicans wondering whether they can consistently win statewide races in Nevada without drastic changes — especially on abortion.
"You simply can't" win without a shift, said Jim Denton, a longtime Republican consultant in Las Vegas.
"You haven't been able to for the last 20 years," he said Wednesday in a telephone interview, noting the strength of abortion rights advocates in the state.
One exception is Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, also an abortion opponent. Heller, however, was able to close the gap among women, perhaps securing his narrow victory over Democratic challenger Rep. Shelley Berkley.
While Berkley carried the female vote, the margin was slim and only about one-third as much of the edge that Obama enjoyed.
Political insiders all but predicted Romney's struggles.
On a hot August day in 2011, Barbara Vucanovich, the 91-year-old former congresswoman and matriarch of Nevada's Republican Party, was introducing some of her family to Ann Romney outside the Washoe County Republican Party headquarters.
Elisa Cafferata, the granddaughter of the first Nevada woman elected to Congress in 1982 and former executive director of the county party, extended her hand to Ann Romney in support and began with an aside in the interest of full disclosure.
"I'm a Republican, but I work for Planned Parenthood," she said with a smile in regard to the pro-abortion rights organization that Mitt Romney advocated abolishing. "So I hope we'll take that off the table and talk jobs."
The survey of 4,141 voters was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 47 precincts statewide Tuesday, as well as 1,104 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.