Though GOP hopeful Mitt Romney handily won the New Hampshire primary, exit polls reveal a chink in his strategy moving into South Carolina and Florida, and it's his looming problem of wooing the middle class.
Among New Hampshire voters who earn less than $50,000, exit polls show that Romney and Ron Paul split the vote. Romney's success with voters increased as their incomes rose. He captured the highest percentage of voters in New Hampshire among people who earn $100,000 or more a year (47 percent).
ABC's Jake Tapper writes that the Obama campaign is carefully examining these exit polls, which only bolster their hope that they can paint the incumbent president as the middle-class protector and Romney as a sympathetic friend to businesses and the wealthy.
But more immediately, these polls show the perception problem the GOP front-runner faces as the campaign shifts to South Carolina and Florida, two places plagued by higher-than-average unemployment rates; depleted housing markets; and high numbers of residents on food stamps. There, the vote of lower-income Americans is still up for grabs.
In this economic climate, Romney is going to have to appeal to residents as attacks mount on his tenure at the private-equity firm Bain Capital and Newt Gingrich's super PAC unveils an unflattering documentary highlighting workers who say they lost their jobs thanks to Bain-run takeovers. Of course, this will all play out against the backdrop of South Carolina and Florida's respective 9.9 percent and 10 percent unemployment rates — both significantly higher than the national rate of 8.5 percent.
And don't expect Romney's rivals to let his recent remark slide that he too understands what it's like to fear the pink slip, i.e. losing a job. Really, Mitt? Let's dig into that precise moment with the folks of Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., cities where the latest unemployment rate tops 9 percent.
Romney and the other GOP candidates may also want to tone down or shift their rhetoric on antipoverty and entitlement programs once they drive into the South. The nuances of funding the food-stamp program through the federal government or through block grants given to the states (a point both Rick Santorum and Romney brought up in last Sunday's Meet the Press debate) may be lost on South Carolinians, especially the 844,405 residents who collected food stamps in 2011. That figure puts the state on par poverty-wise with Alabama, Kentucky, and Louisiana.
And what about the Republicans' recent play for conservative votes with the unveiling of their tax policies that largely cut rates for the wealthy and corporations? GOP rivals have expressed concern that the former governor of Massachusetts is not suitably conservative enough, but his fiscal plan is anything but moderate. It would make the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for the wealthy; eliminate the estate tax; and lower the corporate tax rate, depriving the federal government of huge streams of revenue. The lone nod to the middle class is the elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividends for a person who earns less than $200,000.
Try selling that in South Carolina, where the median income is $42,580 and where 17.1 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. This is not a state where legions of middle-class people are making piles off their stock portfolios investments.
Instead, Santorum's tax proposals may gain more traction in socially conservative Florida. Like his rivals, Santorum would cut corporate tax rates, but he also proposes helping out families by tripling the personal exemption for children and reducing federal taxes that penalize married couples. His plan to charge no corporate taxes for manufacturers should also play well in South Carolina, where factories line the I-85 corridor between Greenville and Spartanburg.
Even with Romney's consecutive victories in the GOP race's first two contests, he still hasn't proven that he can win over independent, low-income, or middle-class voters; neither has he shown any great skill for connecting with "normal people" on the trail.
As the economy becomes an even greater focus and as the candidates finally hit states still reeling from the recession, the Republicans may have to tweak their tax-cutting, anti-entitlement message. Romney's top policy adviser recently told The Wall Street Journal that a big part of the campaign's new economic plan would be looking at the benefits the federal government offers and digging into the idea of who's truly poor and needs assistance. Not everyone does, the thinking goes, and cutting some people off or reducing their tax breaks could save the federal government money.
That's a great talking point for the far-right and for economically healthy states like Iowa. It'll be fascinating to see if that messaging holds up in South Carolina or Florida, where all of the Republican candidates need to appeal to working class voters — even those who occasionally need a boost from the government.