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The message to Republican presidential candidates Tuesday night was loud and clear: Not only do older voters play a huge role in determining the winner in the primaries, but they show up.

Turnout among voters 50 and up was dramatically higher than among younger voters in both Alabama and Mississippi, according to exit polls. And Rick Santorum had voters aged 50-64 to thank for his wins in both states, which keep him in a nomination fight against Mitt Romney, the better-funded front-runner.

Romney – as has been the case in other states – did well among voters 65 and older. While it wasn’t enough to earn Romney a win in either state, it kept him competitive in a region he quipped was akin to “an away game” venue.

In Mississippi, a full 67 percent of voters listed their ages as 50 or older, putting the state in the same league as Florida, where 71 percent of the GOP primary vote was in the 50+ bracket. Santorum won the 50-to-64-year-old vote with a 35 percent plurality. Newt Gingrich won the highest support among  Mississippians 65 and older, taking 39 percent against 35 percent for Romney. That helped Gingrich to place well – although not first – after struggling through the primary race with just two outright wins under his belt.

In Alabama, voters 50 and older accounted for 59 percent of the vote, similar to results in earlier primary states. Romney took the plurality, 37 percent, of the 65+ vote, with Gingrich coming in second with 31 percent. Santorum won the votes of 50-to-64-year-olds in Alabama, taking 35 percent, compared with 30 percent for Romney.

Ron Paul, whose appeal has been strongest among young voters (he won the under-40 vote in the Iowa caucuses, for example), scored in the low single digits among 50+ voters in both Alabama and Mississippi, the exit polls showed. – Susan Milligan

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