Some news reports say Newt Gingrich carried South Carolina by winning big in rural counties. In fact, the former House Speaker won by about the same margin in rural, urban and exurban counties. He did best in exurban South Carolina.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won an across-the-board victory Saturday in the Republican presidential primary, taking rural, urban and exurban counties by almost the same margin. Statewide, Gingrich won 40.4% of the vote.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney trailed Gingrich across the state, pulling 27.8% in the third Republican primary state.
(See the charts with this story, which show how each candidate fared in rural, urban and exurban counties. The charts include the candidates’ statewide percentages for comparison.)
Three out of ten South Carolina voters live in exurban counties — communities where at least half the residents live in rural settings but mostly work in nearby large cities. These counties are dotted outside Columbia, Charleston and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Gingrich did best in these exurban counties, where he won 43.1% of the vote. He did nearly as well in rural counties, where he won 42.9% of the vote.
Romney did his worst in exurban counties, where he won only 24.2% of the vote.
Just two out of ten voters in the South Carolina Republican primary came from rural counties. Gingrich won 42.9% of rural voters. Romney won 28.9%.
News reports trumpeted Gingrich’s victory as coming from South Carolina’s rural precincts. CBS News, for example, reported that “Gingrich did particularly well among rural voters in South Carolina.”[img:2012SCPrimaryExurban.jpg]It would be more accurate to say that Gingrich did only slightly better among rural voters. The former House Speaker’s victory was relatively even across rural, urban and exurban.
Gingrich did his worst in urban counties, which supplied half of all votes in the primary. But he still won 37.9% of those voters, just a little more than two percentage points below his statewide total.
Romney won 29.6% of urban voters — not quite two percentage points above his statewide total.
There just wasn’t a significant difference in how urban, rural and exurban voters cast their ballots. Just under half of South Carolina voters (49.7%) in total came from cities; Gingrich won 46.5% of his votes from urban areas.
There were much larger differences among rural, urban and exurban voters in Iowa and New Hampshire than in South Carolina.[img:2012SCPrimaryUrban.jpg]We are seeing a recurring phenomenon in news media exit polls that is distorting reporting on the vote. The exit polls said 29% of those voting come from rural areas. (The exit polls ask voters if they live in a city of more than 50,000, a suburb or a rural area.)
When you count voters who live in counties determined to be rural by the U.S. Census, however, only 20.3% of voters are rural.
In other words, the term “rural” is not well defined in exit polling. For that matter, neither is urban.