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Conservatives, evangelical Christians rebuff Romney in South Carolina

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who just a few days ago seemed poised to capitalize on his New Hampshire primary victory to win South Carolina, failed to appeal to conservative, lower-income, and evangelical Christian voters in the state, which led to Saturday’s victory for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Click here for full results of the primary in South Carolina

And exit poll interviews indicated that South Carolina Republicans emphatically disagreed with the judgment of their GOP counterparts in New Hampshire that Romney was the Republican best able to beat President Barack Obama in November.

Forty-five percent of voters interviewed said that defeating Obama in November was the issue that mattered most to them and 51 percent of them chose Gingrich. Romney won 37 percent of those voters.

Born-again or evangelical Christians accounted for nearly two-thirds of the electorate and Gingrich easily beat Romney in that group: 44 percent to 21 percent.

Three out of five voters interviewed in the exit poll said that it mattered somewhat or greatly whether a candidate shared their religious views and Gingrich beat Romney by better than two to one among such voters.

Gingrich is a former Baptist who converted to Roman Catholicism; Romney is a Mormon, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Self-described Catholics made up 13 percent of the electorate and Gingrich won 37 percent of them; former Pennsylvania senator Santorum, also a Catholic, won 17 percent of Catholic voters, while Romney won 30 percent.

Among those who said having shared religious beliefs with a presidential contender did not much matter or didn’t matter at all, Romney prevailed, 39 percent to Gingrich’s 32 percent.

Self-described conservatives accounted for nearly 70 percent of the electorate and Gingrich won 44 percent of those voters, compared to Romney’s 24 percent.

There were some indications in the exit poll data that this week’s debate in which Gingrich furiously denounced the news media for reporting allegations made by his ex-wife their marriage may have helped him. Nearly 90 percent of exit poll respondents said the recent debates were a factor in deciding whom to support and Gingrich trounced Romney in that group: winning 42 percent to Romney’s 25 percent.

More than half the voters told exit poll interviewers that they’d decided in the last few days for whom they would vote and Gingrich overwhelmingly won such late deciders, getting 44 percent of them to Romney’s 22 percent.

There was almost no gender gap in Saturday’s electorate, according to the exit poll. Women voters favored Gingrich, 38 percent to Romney’s 29 percent. Among male voters, Gingrich won 42 percent and Romney 26 percent.

Gingrich beat Romney by 16 percentage points – 40 percent to 24 percent -- among voters who said they had a family income of less than $50,000 a year.

Less educated voters also favored Gingrich – a former college history professor -- by a wide margin: those with no college degree accounted for 53 percent of Saturday’s electorate and Gingrich won 42 percent of those voters, with Romney getting only 24 percent of them. Santorum won 19 percent of such voters, while Rep. Ron Paul of Texas won 14 percent of them.

But among voters with a postgraduate education, Romney beat Gingrich, 37 percent to 34 percent. 

In the past two weeks, Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who quit the race on Thursday, had assailed Romney’s role as head of Bain Capital in the 1980s. Bain Capital bought and restructured companies, leading in some cases to layoffs of workers.

But nearly two out of three voters said they had a positive view of Romney’s investment and managerial career.

Among the 28 percent of voters who said they had a negative view of Romney’s business career, not surprisingly 50 percent of them backed Gingrich, compared to 23 percent for Paul and 22 percent for Santorum.

While nearly all exit poll interviewees said they were “very or somewhat worried” about the direction of the nation’s economy in the next few years, only about one out of five said their own family was falling behind financially. Of that “falling behind” group, Gingrich ran first, winning 44 percent of them to Romney’s 25 percent.

Gingrich also won among voters age 65 and over, winning 47 percent of them to Romney’s 36 percent.

The South Carolina outcome was a remarkable turnaround for Gingrich who barely finished fourth in the New Hampshire primary last week.

Gingrich’s lackluster New Hampshire performance did not seem to bode well for the South Carolina contest: he could not break above 20 percent for any of the age, income, ideological or demographic groups that were identified in the New Hampshire exit poll sample from that contest.