DAYTON, Ohio—Mitt Romney’s failure to lock up the GOP presidential nomination on Super Tuesday has inspired yet another round of explanations of his shortcomings. Among them: The ideologically insincere, personally robotic Romney can’t inspire conservatives. When Republicans do vote for him, they do so with the enthusiasm of serving jury duty.
That explanation, however, doesn’t account for Fred Cramer. The 61-year-old owner of a manufacturing company in Cincinnati attended a Romney rally here three days before the Ohio primary. Afterward, he gushed about the man he said was the only candidate in the Republican race to understand business. “It was wonderful,” he said.
Cramer, who describes himself as “conservative but not ultraconservative,” praised Romney’s comment that, unlike government, if a business fails it goes bankrupt. He also was taken with what he saw as Romney’s pragmatic emphasis on jobs. “Since I’m the owner of a business and L.L.C., I loved it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how business-centric he was.”
Far from an anomaly, Cramer represents Romney’s base—suburban, white-collar voters focused on revitalizing the economy, not fighting the culture war. Unlike some of their ideologically driven conservative compatriots, these Republicans are happy to have Romney as their nominee. That much was clear during his rally outside of Dayton, where the audience cheered wildly as Romney vowed to reignite the economy and pointedly avoided social issues, even as a debate about religious freedom and contraception raged through Washington.
These Republican primary voters are far less noisy and visible than the tea party faithful. But if Romney claims the nomination, as looks likely, it will be due to them. Beyond that, Cramer and voters like him are central to Romney’s plan to topple President Obama in the fall. The hope is that Romney’s appeal to upscale suburbanites will transcend party lines in states such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, and attract independents who have lately trended Democratic. “Mitt Romney is running as a guy who fixes things, not as a guy who believes in things,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant and former Romney adviser. “And that appeals to the nonideological suburbs.”
Exit and entrance polls from two months of primaries and caucuses have shown Romney consistently winning among high-income voters, particularly those earning $100,000 and above, and the college-educated subset. White-collar voters were certainly responsible for helping Romney eke out his 12,000-vote victory in Ohio. Romney won 46 percent of the vote among those who make more than $100,000, compared with Rick Santorum’s 32 percent. Meanwhile, Santorum won handily among voters who make less than $100,000. And a quick glance at the county-by-county map in Ohio reveals that Romney succeeded in winning votes in the state’s major cities and surrounding suburbs, while Santorum swept through the rural regions.
That electorate will eventually cut a pathway for Romney to the nomination. Although he will still face primary tests in upcoming blue-collar states such as Alabama and Louisiana, Romney can bank on a bevy of white-collar-rich states to boost his political bid. In Illinois, for example, college graduates made up 52 percent of the GOP primary electorate in 2008. (In Ohio, college grads made up only 45 percent of Tuesday’s vote.) California and New Jersey, two other states yet to hold their primaries, have a similar demographic breakdown.
The bigger question for Romney is whether the upscale coalition he has assembled in a GOP primary can be enlarged in the general election. At least until the conservative wave of 2010, such voters had presented an increasing problem for the GOP.
The area where Romney held his pre-Ohio primary rally is emblematic of the shift. Montgomery County, which encompasses the city of Dayton, had been a swing county for years. George W. Bush lost there in 2000 and again in 2004, but by fewer than 5,000 votes each time. But by 2006, amid a Democratic wave, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Gov. Ted Strickland each won Montgomery with relative ease. Barack Obama, who performed better with college graduates than John Kerry had four years earlier, won the county comfortably in 2008.
Most of those suburban voters might have lined up with Republicans on economic issues but were alienated by the party’s hard edge on topics like gay rights. Romney’s promise is that he can embody the business-friendly, fiscally conservative wing of the party while signaling that he’s not a culture warrior. “At times, the passionate wing of the Republican Party has been willing to self-immolate to prove its principles. Sometimes that scares centrists,” Castellanos said. “Romney may at times not be ideologically inspiring, but he’s not scary.”
The danger for Romney is that the brutal GOP primary has already damaged his image with these voters, particularly in the last month as the race has taken a sharp turn toward social issues. During that time, Romney had to profess full-throated support for the party’s fight against an Obama administration rule requiring religious-affiliated institutions to offer employees insurance that covers contraception. “The hard-core social conservatives that Mitt Romney has had to pay obedience to the past couple of months really undercut his appeal in the suburbs,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist.
For Romney, winning back those voters comes down to a 20-year-old political truism: It’s the economy, stupid.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.