The lesson is clear: If you want to win a Republican primary this election season, you'd better make a persuasive case to voters 50 and older - because they're the ones tipping the scales in favor of the winning candidate.
Older voters made the difference again yesterday on Super Tuesday, as Mitt Romney appeared to take a major step forward in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination by winning primaries or caucuses in six states. Rick Santorum won three states, cementing his position as Romney's main challenger, while Newt Gingrich won his home state of Georgia. Ron Paul, the fourth candidate still in the race, posted his strongest showing in a non-caucus state when he was chosen by four in 10 voters in Virginia - where he and Romney were the only candidates on the ballot.
Romney and Santorum split the two most carefully watched states, Ohio and Tennessee, with the results in the other eight states falling in line with the expectations of political analysts. While the most delegates in a single state were awarded in Georgia, the big prize of the night was Ohio. The Buckeye State lies smack-dab between Romney's native state of Michigan and Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, and historically has been crucial to Republican presidential candidates in the general election: Since the dawn of the 20th century, no Republican has captured the White House without carrying Ohio in November.
And in Ohio, as has been the case in every state he's won so far, Romney owed his victory to older voters. Romney defeated Santorum there by just one percentage point, but according to exit polls Santorum racked up a huge percentage of voters younger than 40 - and also carried voters 40-49 by a comfortable 8 percent. While Romney squeaked by among voters 50-64, who accounted for fully a third of all voters in Ohio's GOP primary, he walloped Santorum by 16 percentage points among voters 65 and older, who accounted for another 23 percent of GOP primary voters.
Romney also carried the 65+ vote in Tennessee by a slight margin, but it wasn't enough to overcome Santorum's advantage in all other age groups - including the crucial 50-64 cohort, which accounted for 35 percent of all voters in the Volunteer State. Santorum won there by 7 percent.
The only other primary state in which the victor did not win the 65+ vote was Oklahoma, where Gingrich outpolled Santorum handily among voters 65 and older. Overall, Santorum won the Sooner State by 6 percent over Gingrich, fueled by victories among voters 50-64 - and all other age groups.
The state with the starkest age difference among voter preferences was Virginia, which became the second southern state in Romney's win column. (The first was Florida, which voted on Jan. 31.) Paul won 73 percent of the vote among voters under 40, and fought Romney to a near standstill among voters 40-49. But in a state where six in 10 voters was 50 or older, Romney's clear victory in that age bracket - he won 60 percent of the vote of those aged 50-64, and an astounding 83 percent of those 65 and older - was enough to give him a wide margin in the overall vote.
Next on the GOP calendar: caucuses in Kansas and the Virgin Islands this Saturday, when the multi-day Wyoming caucuses will also conclude, and primaries in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday. And, if this election season's history is any guide to the future, it will once again be voters 50 and older who will decide which candidate walks away with the most delegates to this summer's GOP convention. - Bernard Ohanian