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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

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

March 18, 2012

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.

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).

Most consistently, Santorum carried evangelical Christians in all six of those states, as well as in Arizona, where Romney otherwise dominated. Earlier, of course, Santorum also won evangelicals in the Iowa caucuses. The limit confronting Santorum is that he has not carried more than 31 percent of voters who do not identify as evangelicals in any state.

As long as these patterns hold, Romney would maintain a clear edge in states, many of them along the coasts, where evangelicals will likely comprise only about a third or the vote or less (and affluent, better-educated voters also loom larger), including Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and California.

Santorum stands as a clear favorite in interior states where evangelicals will likely cast at least half of the GOP ballots (and the overall electorate will tilt more blue collar), including Missouri (whose caucuses began Saturday), Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and probably North Carolina and Indiana (where no recent exit polls are available).

The very few true battleground states probably will be those where evangelicals will likely represent about 40 to 45 percent of the vote, as they did in closely contested Michigan and Ohio. That relatively short list ranges from Wisconsin and Illinois (at the lower end, which inclines them more toward Romney) to Oregon and Nebraska. In states such as these, another key variable will be whether the non-evangelical vote tilts upscale (which would help Romney) or downscale (which would benefit Santorum).

Here in Illinois, where evangelicals cast 41 percent of the 2008 GOP primary ballots, and college graduates 52 percent, all signs suggest the basic patterns of support are holding. That would leave Romney as a favorite here, though not one safely beyond the reach of Santorum, who is clearly touching a chord with the party’s populist wing.

On Friday night, for instance, one of the largest and most enthusiastic crowds of the campaign greeted Santorum when he arrived at the Christian Liberty Academy, a conservative religious school in Arlington Heights, about an hour northwest of Chicago. Even before Santorum arrived, the audience pulsed with enthusiastic energy for speakers like Calvin Lindstrom, the pastor at the school’s affiliated church, who bemoaned “with disgrace the sin that has resulted in the murder of 50 million unborn children in just the past generation” and exhorted his listeners to pray “in the name of King Jesus.”

Once Santorum took the stage before an enormous American flag, the crowd repeatedly interrupted him with standing ovations and calls of “liberty” and “amen.” Almost as one, the audience shouted out the word “Creator” when Santorum dramatically paused and allowed them to fill the silence after he started reciting the section from the Declaration of Independence that reads “all men are created equal and endowed by their ...”

Even when two young men stood up in the bleachers to loudly chant slogans at Santorum before embracing for an ardent kiss, the impassioned interruption seemed more to energize than unnerve the crowd—which lustily chanted “USA, USA” as security led the protesters away. After the speech, the audience filed out into the night with a palpable buzz of excitement, many of them carrying Santorum placards and lining up to purchase buttons and bumper stickers.

Compared to the raucous reception Santorum ignited on Friday night—and Saturday afternoon in Effingham—Mitt Romney’s rally later Saturday in Collinsville carried all the voltage of an annual shareholder’s meeting. In this small Southern Illinois community, a much smaller crowd and older crowd than in Effingham sat sedately on chairs arrayed in a theater-in-the-round setting while Romney delivered a very short speech on energy and the economy and took a few admiring questions.

Yet after the speech, several of those attending expressed strong commitments to Romney, almost always centered on his prior experience in business or the belief that he represents the best chance to beat Obama. “We need a business leader and someone who really understands the economy,” said Tom McRae, a Madison County Board member.

McRae was wearing the sort of natty tan suit that is rarely seen at a Santorum rally. In both Effingham and Arlington Heights, Santorum’s crowd was more likely to sport a baseball cap -- or, for that matter, to be pushing a baby stroller.

Unless significantly more strollers and baseball caps turn up at Romney rallies — or Santorum attracts more suits — the longest and most closely fought Republican nomination race since 1976 will grind on with the former Massachusetts governor likely strong enough to retain his lead, but too weak to eliminate his principal rival.

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