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Mitt Romney swept the primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia — and he has older voters to thank for it.

In both Wisconsin and Maryland, voters age 50 and older made up a bigger share of the GOP primary electorate than they did in 2008. And exit polls in both states (no exit polling was done in the D.C., where Rick Santorum wasn’t even on the ballot) indicate that the older the voter, the more likely they were to go for Romney.

In Wisconsin, Romney took 44 percent of the 50- to 64-year-old vote, compared with 38 percent for Santorum, 9 percent for Ron Paul and 6 percent for Newt Gingrich. The gap was wider for voters 65 and older, with Romney winning 52 percent, Santorum 36 percent, and Gingrich and Paul 5 percent each. Romney’s share of the vote grew with each voter age group, starting with 30-year-olds (under-30 voters accounted for a negligible share of the vote), although Santorum beat Romney by four points among 40 to 49-year-old voters in the Wisconsin primary.

This year, voters 50 and older made up 61 percent of the GOP primary vote in Wisconsin, compared with 52 percent in 2008. That’s a dramatic jump, especially with Medicare emerging as potentially a big campaign issue in the general election.

In Maryland’s GOP primary, the pattern was even more pronounced. While Romney lost big to Santorum among 40- to 49-year-olds (33 percent to 49 percent), he carried a startling 57 percent of 50- to 64-year-old voters and 60 percent of 65+ voters (with Santorum getting just 24 percent and 22 percent in those age groups).

As in Wisconsin, older voters made up a much larger proportion of the primary electorate. This year, 50+ voters cast almost two-thirds (66 percent) of the votes in Maryland’s GOP primary, compared with 46 percent in 2008.

Romney campaigned closely with Republican Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. Republicans have pegged Ryan as a rising young star in the party, so the side-by-side campaigning was seen as helpful to Romney’s effort to solidify the GOP base. But with Democrats eager to attack Republicans across the board this fall for Ryan’s budget plan, which would dramatically overhaul Medicare, that political equation could soon change. —Susan Milligan

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