COLUMBIA — Evangelicals, women and GOP voters in three counties are proving S.C. politics are unpredictable.
Exit polling from Saturday's S.C. Republican presidential primary shows:
Evangelical voters chose thrice-married Newt Gingrich, who has admitted to a past extramarital affair with a congressional aide who is now his wife, by a nearly two-to-one margin over front-runner Mitt Romney.
Women and men both would prefer Gingrich. But they don't support him equally. Men were much more drawn to Gingrich - 41 percent backed him compared to Romney's 27 percent support. Women also preferred Gingrich but by a much slimmer margin - 36 percent compared to 30 percent for Romney. The Romney campaign predicted a gender divide in the final days of the campaign.
Gingrich reinvented the state's geographic map. From the Upstate to the Lowcountry, Gingrich dominated, losing only three counties to Romney: Beaufort, Charleston and Richland counties.
Part of the answer is a frustrated electorate - including evangelicals, men and women and voters across the country - that said the sluggish economy was their top issue. Exit polling reveals that 97 percent of voters said they were worried about the economy. And a combined 85 percent chose the economy and the federal budget deficit as their most important issue.
Gingrich voters including Sharon Jenkins of Columbia said jump-starting the sluggish economy was one of her top issues and she didn't want to hear about Gingrich's personal-life problems.
"That doesn't matter at all as long as he's taking care of the country," Jenkins said.
Gingrich's campaign also worked to boost support from evangelicals and women.
Following former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's surprise success in the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich's S.C. director Adam Waldeck dispatched more volunteers to the Upstate where evangelicals and social conservatives dominate.
On the crucial last day before the S.C. primary, when Gingrich was enjoying new focus because of his S.C. debate performances, Waldeck tore up the schedule and sent Gingrich on a last-minute Upstate swing through Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson counties to halt Santorum's potential rise.
"Santorum's performance in Iowa made everyone work a little harder," Waldeck said Sunday.
And from the early days of the campaign, the Gingrich team worked for the female vote, speaking to many of the state's Republican women's group through Gingrich's wife, Callista, along with his two grown daughters who shot down rumors of Gingrich's coldness toward his first wife.
Gingrich chose a female-owned political consulting firm, Sherlock and Gaines Consulting Group, in Greenville, who worked to lock down the female vote and other key voting blocs.
But Waldeck, along with S.C. political consultants, are scratching their heads as to why three counties broke with the rest of the state and chose Romney.
"Those three things don't usually align," said Chris Drummond, a Charleston political consultant, adding that Beaufort County is particularly strange.
"It should have fallen into line with Horry (County) because they both have a lot of transplants from the Northeast," Drummond added.
Waldeck notes Romney did not win but had strong showings along the coast, including Beaufort and Charleston counties, in 2008. He suspects there is a carry-over effect from then.
S.C. political consultant Shell Suber said geography is overemphasized in interpreting primary results.
"I suspect the Gingrich/Romney dynamic has far more to do with the individual voter's identification with the candidate's message than it does the county or precinct where they live," Suber said.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658