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Why Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum May Battle Until June Why Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum May Battle Until June

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field

Campaign 2012

Why Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum May Battle Until June

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Mindy and Tim Meyer of Vandalia, Ill., at Santorum's Saturday afternoon rally in a kitchen equipment factory in Effingham, Ill.(Ronald Brownstein)

EFFINGHAM, Ill. – Can either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum meaningfully advance beyond the ideological and demographic beachheads of support they have secured in the marathon slog for the Republican presidential nomination?

That’s probably the most important remaining question in the grueling race. And it will be voters like Mindy Meyer -- a surgical nurse from nearby Vandalia who drove with her husband to see Santorum in this small southern Illinois town on Saturday afternoon -- who answer it.

 

Meyer liked everything she heard from Santorum on reducing federal spending and increasing pressure on Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. She even agreed, mostly, with his views on social issues like abortion -- although she thinks gay couples should receive equal rights under the law, if not the label of marriage for their unions.

But even after watching Santorum deliver a characteristically fiery attack on both Romney and President Obama to a large crowd on the floor of a kitchen equipment factory here, Meyer is still hesitating about pulling the lever for him in Tuesday’s Illinois primary. Her fear is that Santorum’s unflinching social conservatism will render him unelectable against Obama.

“I appreciate Santorum’s views [on social issues] but I don’t believe he can get the whole mainstream,” she said. So she’s wrestling between Santorum and Romney, whom she believes has a better chance in November.

 

Meyer and her like-minded husband Tim, a construction worker, are two of the few floating pieces in a Republican race that has become increasingly defined by strikingly stable patterns of support for the leading contenders. As the race has careened from state to state, the issue has been less whether Romney, Santorum (or, for that matter, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul) will significantly increase their support among the key groups in the Republican coalition, but how many of those voters live in each state.

“It doesn’t make any difference what state you’re in; you are talking about the particular demographics voting the same way in each one of them,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

While Romney has faced considerable criticism for his inability to consolidate the party’s most conservative vanguard, Santorum has demonstrated a parallel inability to penetrate the party’s more moderate, affluent and economy-focused wing.

Unless Romney or Santorum can break this pattern, the remaining primaries and caucuses will turn less on the jousting between them than on the underlying demographics of each state as it takes its turn on the calendar. And if that pattern holds, Romney would retain his delegate advantage over Santorum and Gingrich, but likely confront a close call on attracting enough delegates for a first-ballot majority while also facing enough losses in conservative-leaning Southern and heartland states to sustain doubts about his ability to mobilize the GOP base.

 

In that way, this GOP contest increasingly resembles the long 2008 Democratic struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. In that contest, even aides on the two sides eventually came to see it as something of a mathematical equation, with Obama winning states that tilted toward his coalition of white-collar whites and African-Americans, and Clinton triumphing in places with larger numbers of blue-collar whites and Hispanics.

In this year’s GOP race, the most important (and stable) dividing lines have been ideology, income, education, and, above all, religious affiliation. So far, exit polls have been conducted in 16 primaries or caucuses. And in them, the pattern of support for Romney in particular has shown remarkable consistency.

From state to state, Romney has consistently run best among the more affluent, more secular and somewhat more moderate voters who constitute the GOP’s managerial wing.

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Among voters who describe themselves as moderate, Romney has carried a plurality or majority in 13 states. Just as important, he has won voters who identify as somewhat conservative in all but four states. Romney has also carried voters who make at least $100,000 annually in every state except South Carolina and Georgia, where they broke for favorite-son Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor has carried voters with at least a four-year college degree in all but five Southern and border states.

Romney’s most consistent and reliable support has come among voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians. He has carried those voters in every state with an exit poll, except Gingrich’s home turf of Georgia.

The flip side has been that Romney, in all but his strongest states, has consistently struggled with the key components of the GOP’s populist wing. Since Santorum revived his campaign with his three-state sweep on Feb. 7, the former Senator has consistently run very well with these voters.

Santorum has won voters who identify as very conservative in almost all of the states with exit polls that both men have contested in recent weeks. That list includes Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Alabama. Santorum has also carried voters earning $50,000 or less in all six of those states (except for Mississippi where he tied with Gingrich), and those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 (except in Oklahoma, where Romney tied him). Santorum also carried voters without a college degree in all six of those states (again except Mississippi, where he tied with Gingrich).

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