WASHINGTON -- As Newt Gingrich surged to a surprise victory in the South Carolina GOP primary, one particularly crucial voter category showed itself once again to be a major problem for erstwhile frontrunner Mitt Romney: the working class.
According to exit polling data from CBS News, voters who took in less than $50,000 in total family income last year broke overwhelmingly for Gingrich, 38 percent to Romney's 25 percent. Voters from families earning more than $100,000 annually still went for Gingrich, but at a much slimmer margin, 37 percent to 35. And among voters with no more than a high school education, the former House speaker trounced the former Massachusetts governor, 46 percent to 22.
Overall, the numbers suggest that Romney still hasn’t managed to shake his image as a wealthy Northeasterner who's out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people on ordinary incomes.
What's harder to tell is whether many of those voters in the Palmetto State were swayed by attacks from Gingrich and others on Romney's business past. Romney's tenure at venture capital firm Bain Capital became a major campaign issue in the past two weeks; in a strange twist, Republican candidates were bashing Romney for his business success, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry going so far as to call him a "vulture capitalist" before dropping out of the race.
Romney didn't exactly earn working class bona fides by waffling on whether or not to release his tax returns. Although he's disclosed that his income tax rate is probably around 15 percent since he makes most of his money off investments, Romney still has not committed to disclosing his tax returns even if he's elected president, most likely because the discrepancy between his tax rate and that of many ordinary Americans could be quite large. At the debate on Thursday night, Romney was asked once again about the tax issue by moderator John King; he dodged the question awkwardly, prompting boos from the audience.
South Carolina isn't the first state where Romney has struggled with voters of moderate means. As BuzzFeed has pointed out, Romney was largely carried by wealthier voters in New Hampshire, winning all of the income categories above $30,000, including more than half the voters who earn more than $200,000 a year, according CNN exit polling.
Correction: This post originally referred to the New Hampshire exit polling data as data from the Iowa caucuses.