Reading South Carolina's Tea Leaves

Newt Gingrich thumped his GOP opponents on Saturday, cruising to a win in South Carolina’s primary. Gingrich’s win means that three separate candidates have each won a race, with Romney taking New Hampshire and Santorum recently declared the winner of Iowa. The South Carolina Republican party is by no means representative of the national party, but looking through the exit polls, there are a number of conclusions we can draw:

Post-college graduates and moderates dig Romney: Among the few groups that the former Massachusetts governor won were folks who attended graduate school (36 percent) and preferred neither liberal nor conservative candidates (36 percent). This is despite the fact that Romney hasn’t played up his fairly moderate record as governor, nor his dual J.D./MBA from Harvard.

Rich people love Romney: The former Bain consultant easily took voters making more than $200,000 (47 percent), but he lost widely among all other income brackets. Not a good sign for a candidate who hopes to win a general election composed of many voters still struggling economically.

The youngsters like Ron Paul: The Texas libertarian only took 14 percent of the ballot, but he won among voters aged 18-29. That’s a concern for the party’s future, given the fact that Paul has been mostly ignored by the conservative media.

The Tea Party likes Gingrich: The former U.S. House Speaker took voters who both supported (45 percent) and felt neutral (35 percent) toward the Tea Party. Romney won voters who oppose the Tea Party (32 percent).

Religion continues to haunt Romney: Gingrich easily won voters who are concerned with the religious beliefs of the candidates (46 percent). Romney might need to deliver another JFK/Catholicism speech, like he did in 2008.

Gingrich swipes the economy issue: Romney has built much of his campaign on the fact that only he, an experienced businessman, can right the economy. That message isn’t resonating with voters — Gingrich received the support of 40 percent of voters who were worried about the economy. Romney took only 27 percent.

The GOP still doesn’t love Romney: Only 38 percent of South Carolina voters said they’d support Romney “enthusiastically” in the general election. Nearly half (48 percent) would support him “with reservations,” while a scary 13 percent wouldn’t support him at all. He’ll have to do better if he wants to unite the GOP — or, for that matter, win the nomination in the first place.