Friday, February 10, 2012

Mitt Romney's Electability Problem

After Tuesday's election results, everyone and their mother is talking about Mitt Romney's predicament. The New York Times's Nate Silver has a particularly thorough post mortem: no matter how hard he tries, Romney cannot seal the deal with key segments of the Republican electorate.

Specifically, Nate notes Romney's low batting average in caucus states (1 for 4) and Midwestern states (0 for 3). To explain this, he teases out some damning numbers for the Romney campaign: their candidate has consistently struggled to win over very conservative voters, Tea Partiers, those who are not well off, and non-urban dwellers. And then there's the trend that Newt Gingrich himself has noted: counties won by Romney have seen depressed turnout this year (compared to the 2008 Republican primaries), while Gingrich or Santorum counties have seen increased turnout and enthusiasm. In his article, Nate examines all this evidence and concludes that Romney could have a much uglier, tougher path to the nomination than everyone assumes.

However, I take a slightly longer view. As Nate does acknowledge, Romney remains the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination for president. He has the most delegates thus far in the race. He still leads in national polls; he has the most money. Crucially, the Republican establishment also remains behind him. Most importantly, however, he is the only candidate who is organized in almost every state and who is capable of contending in every last primary contest, should the race go that long.

Therefore, as entertaining as the rest of primary season may be, I'm not too concerned about it from a predictive point of view. I'm much more interested in the outcome of the ultimate Obama-Romney battle royal—and Nate's observations are as least as insightful when it comes to November.

In general elections, the Midwest is often a crucial swing region—but I would argue that it is nothing less than the key to victory this fall. The reason lies in President Obama's electoral math. Of the states he won in 2008 (en route to an impressive 358 electoral votes), he figures to remain competitive in Virginia and North Carolina, thanks to continued popularity among African-Americans. Similarly, his odds look good in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada—and he might even be competitive in Arizona—thanks to high Hispanic support. So where is all the Obama disapproval that everyone talks about? You guessed it—the Midwest.

If Barack Obama loses the White House this year, it will be due to the collapse of his popularity among the working-class white voters who inhabit the electoral-vote-rich Rust Belt. Polls show that even Michigan and Pennsylvania, which haven't voted Republican since 1988, may be in play. The votes of those two states have come to be seen by Democrats as part of their baseline of support, from which they can springboard to wins in other states—losses there would be devastating. Meanwhile, it is a well-documented fact that no Republican has won the White House without Ohio.

Whoever he is, the Republican nominee must win over the voters in these states to win the presidency. Yet here is Mitt Romney, failing to win any states in the Midwest in three tries—and those who do vote for him seem unenthusiastic. So far this cycle, Romney has shown himself incapable of winning over the white, working-class Midwesterners who represent Obama's greatest vulnerability. It's not hard to see why, either; his blue-blooded background makes it difficult for him to connect to these voters, and his gaffes—which overwhelmingly revolve around the "I'm rich and privileged" narrative—hit particularly hard among the Rust Belt demographic. (Michiganders and their neighbors haven't heard the last about how Romney opposed bailing out the auto industry, either.) If Romney's troubles in the Midwest persist—although that's a big if, considering that Election Day is nine months away—he will have squandered his party's greatest weapon and failed to exploit his opponent's greatest weakness. If Romney's troubles in the Midwest persist, he will lose to President Obama.

Which brings us full circle back to the Republican primary fight. Much of Romney's advantage derives from the fact that he is perceived to be strongest in a matchup with Obama—in other words, the most electable Republican. But given this new information, the candidate with the most credible claim to that mantle may be Rick Santorum—not because he won in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, but more for his Pennsylvania roots and ability to connect with Rust Belt voters. This both feels like it would be true and is borne out in the numbers; a recent PPP poll in Ohio found that Obama performs worse there against Santorum than against Romney (although the president dispatches both handily). The Santorum campaign would do well to start up a new narrative based on this electability argument; if it actually catches on, it will be fascinating to watch the reaction from Boston and in the polls. As Nate concludes, maybe this thing ain't over yet.

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