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The first three Republican presidential primaries have split 1-1-1. Rick Santorum won Iowa (after the vote was certified), Mitt Romney won New Hampshire, and now Newt Gingrich has won South Carolina.

More than six in 10 voters in Saturday’s primary were age 50 and older, and their support of Gingrich helped propel the former House Speaker to a stunning victory in the Palmetto State.

Gingrich carried all 30-and-older age groups, including the oldest voters who had sided with Romney in earlier contests. Voters over 65 preferred Gingrich 47 percent to 36 percent for Romney. It was slightly closer among voters 50-64: Gingrich won 39 percent  to Romney’s 31 percent. Younger voters remained loyal to Ron Paul.

Two-thirds of South Carolina voters described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, and they chose Gingrich 2-to-1 over Romney. Margins among tea party supporters and evangelical Christians were similarly lopsided for the Georgian, who cited his southern roots at every turn. This was a blow to Santorum, whose candidacy may be on life support without those voters.

South Carolina voters said the ability to beat President Obama was the most important quality in their decision, as was true in Iowa and New Hampshire. But in this conservative state, voters said Gingrich was the best candidate to win the White House, not Romney, by 51 percent to 37 percent.

Newt Gingrich. Credit: Gage Skidmore

South Carolina is a historically conservative state, and thus a barometer of how a Republican candidate will fare in November. “South Carolina is a red base state,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University. “The moniker is ‘we pick presidents’ because we’ve picked every [GOP] nominee since Ronald Reagan.”

But the Republican race has been amazingly volatile thus far and it remains to be seen whether South Carolina will hold its title in 2012.

Next stop: politically and demographically diverse Florida, on Jan. 31.

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