Bloodied but still advancing, Mitt Romney methodically progressed toward the GOP nomination after a grueling Super Tuesday that underscored the continuing class, religious and ideological divisions in a closely divided Republican electorate.
Despite clear signs of continued resistance in the GOP’s conservative heartland, Romney reaffirmed the verdict of his momentum-shifting victory last week in Michigan: the former Massachusetts governor is attracting a coalition just broad enough to hold off his principal remaining rival, Rick Santorum. In particular, Romney’s nail-biting win in Ohio, capping a night that widened his overall delegate lead, may allow him to begin shifting the conversation among Republicans from whether he will clinch the nomination, to when.
Most impressively, Romney, across the broad Super Tuesday landscape, reconfirmed his hold on the better-educated, more affluent managerial wing of his party. Romney carried both voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians and those earning at least $100,000 annually in virtually every state with an exit poll, according to results posted on CNN.com.
Just as he did last week in Michigan, Santorum generally showed continuing strength among the party’s most conservative elements - particularly evangelical Christians. But he failed to reach far enough beyond that core to win states where those voters do not dominate the electorate. While that strength allowed Santorum to win Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Dakota, and press Romney to his limit in Ohio, the night’s overall results underscored Michigan’s indication that the former Pennsylvania senator is attracting too narrow a slice of Republican voters to overtake the former Massachusetts governor.
If anything, though, Tuesday’s results dramatized the inability of either candidate to consistently expand beyond the beachheads of support they have already established. In the most competitive states, Romney continued to struggle among the key elements of the party’s populist wing, particularly evangelical Christians, strong tea party supporters, working-class voters and voters who consider themselves very conservative.
In mirror-image fashion, after Tuesday night’s results, Santorum still has not carried more than 31 percent of Republican voters who do not consider themselves evangelical Christians in any state. (He reached that peak in Oklahoma.) Meanwhile, Romney has now carried a plurality or majority of those less religiously conservative voters in every state, except Oklahoma, where the exit poll showed him falling just short of Santorum. Even in Tennessee, Romney routed Santorum among the roughly one-quarter of voters who did not identify as evangelicals.
Much like the consistent divisions between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic race, these contrasting patterns of support now appear deeply ingrained in the 2012 Republican race.
Santorum’s wins in Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Dakota and the photo finish in Ohio crystallized the former senator’s opportunities in states that tilt toward the GOP’s populist wing, particularly evangelical-heavy Southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. But Romney’s wins Tuesday in Vermont, Massachusetts and Virginia foreshadow his opportunity in the array of affluent coastal and Midwestern states approaching on the calendar, including Illinois in mid-March, New York and Connecticut in April, and California and New Jersey in June.
On balance this division would leave Santorum with little prospect of overcoming Romney’s delegate lead. Further complicating Santorum’s path, Newt Gingrich’s victory in Georgia could revive his capacity to divide the conservative vote in such Southern states.
To truly threaten Romney, Santorum would need to reach beyond the evangelical vanguard and draw more deeply from the broader pool of blue-collar Republican voters who have been consistently cooler toward Romney. But once again, Santorum fell just short of attracting a sufficient numbere of those voters in the night’s marquee contest, Ohio.
Ohio was actually more favorable for Santorum than many of the upcoming mega-states, because evangelicals comprised fully 46 percent of its voters, a higher share than in Illinois or most coastal states in 2008. According to the Ohio exit poll, Santorum won those voters by a solid 16-percentage point margin. But Romney squeezed past him by amassing nearly as big a margin among the 54-percent majority of Ohio voters who did not identify as evangelicals.
Like Michigan, Ohio displayed a stark class and ideological divide. Santorum carried voters without a college education and those earning less than $100,000 annually. But among the opposite groups -- college-educated Republicans and those earning at least $100,000 annually -- Romney ran just well enough to overcome Santorum.
Ideologically, the story was similar. Santorum routed Romney among voters who considered themselves very conservative, but Romney beat him by double-digits among moderates and liberals. Meanwhile, the key swing constituency of voters who consider themselves somewhat conservative broke toward Romney, albeit by a narrower margin than they did last week in Michigan.
Perhaps most tellingly, while Santorum won big among Ohio evangelicals, Romney beat him by a solid 12-percentage point margin among his fellow Catholics. Indeed, Romney, the Mormon, has now topped Santorum, the Roman Catholic, among Catholics in every state with enough of them to measure in exit polls.
Beyond Ohio, Romney ran well, or at least competitively, with the key components of his coalition even in the states least hospitable to him. In addition to Ohio, he won college-plus voters in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts, fought Santorum to a dead-heat with them in Tennessee, and finished close behind Gingrich in Georgia and Santorum in Oklahoma with that group. Also in addition to Ohio, Romney won voters earning at least $100,000 annually in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts and Tennessee, and carried a competitive one-third of them in both Georgia and Oklahoma. Romney has now won at least a plurality of those affluent voters in every state with an exit poll except Georgia, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Romney also carried moderate to liberal voters in Oklahoma and Tennessee, as well as in Massachusetts and Ohio (Ron Paul beat him among those voters narrowly in Virginia and Vermont and Gingrich carried them more convincingly in Georgia.) And, as noted above, Romney carried most voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians in each state except Oklahoma.
The flip side was Romney’s continuing struggles in most states among key components of the GOP’s populist wing -- particularly the overlapping circles of voters who identify as either evangelical Christians or very conservative ideologically. As in his 2008 run, Romney’s difficulties with evangelicals were most pronounced in the South, where the doctrinal suspicion of Mormons is greatest: He won just one-fifth of evangelicals in Georgia and one-fourth in both Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Those voters provide a large enough base to make Santorum a plausible challenger to Romney. But, as Santorum’s Ohio heartbreak demonstrated again, they don’t provide him quite enough of a foundation to make him the nominee. And with Super Tuesday in the books, the opportunities for Santorum to build a coalition broad enough to overtake Romney are steadily diminishing.