Demography as Destiny

No matter the state, it’s the same story: Mitt Romney does well among some groups; Rick Santorum among others.

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Ronald Brownstein
March 22, 2012, 11 a.m.

Demo­graphy and ideo­logy are trump­ing mo­mentum as the gruel­ing Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial race grinds on.

From state to state, the key com­pon­ents of the GOP co­ali­tion have di­vided in stable pat­terns between front-run­ner Mitt Rom­ney and Rick San­tor­um, his chief rival. As the chart be­low demon­strates, Rom­ney has con­sist­ently run best among the more af­flu­ent, more sec­u­lar, and some­what more mod­er­ate voters who con­sti­tute the GOP’s ma­na­geri­al wing. San­tor­um has con­sist­ently run best among the work­ing-class, ideo­lo­gic­ally con­ser­vat­ive, and, above all, evan­gel­ic­al voters who com­prise the party’s pop­u­list wing.

Mo­mentum has splintered re­peatedly against the rocks of these dur­able pref­er­ences. Even after Rom­ney won the biggest prize on Su­per Tues­day by nar­rowly cap­tur­ing Ohio, he fell short only one week later in two South­ern states, Mis­sis­sippi and Alabama, dom­in­ated by evan­gel­ic­al voters. In turn, just one week after San­tor­um basked in those twin vic­tor­ies, he crashed to earth in Illinois, a state that tilts de­cis­ively to­ward the party’s ma­na­geri­al wing. “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,” Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres says.

The per­sist­ence of these pat­terns leaves Rom­ney strong enough to re­main the clear fa­vor­ite for the nom­in­a­tion, but prob­ably not strong enough to drive San­tor­um from the race.

The race’s most con­sist­ent di­vid­ing lines have been ideo­logy, in­come, edu­ca­tion, and es­pe­cially re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation. So far, exit polls have been con­duc­ted in 17 primar­ies and caucuses. Rom­ney has won voters who de­scribe them­selves as mod­er­ate in 14 of them and tied Ron Paul among them in an­oth­er. Voters who identi­fy as some­what con­ser­vat­ive have gone for Rom­ney in all but four states.

The former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor has car­ried voters earn­ing at least $100,000 an­nu­ally in every state ex­cept South Car­o­lina and Geor­gia, where they broke for re­gion­al fa­vor­ite Newt Gin­grich. Those with at least a four-year col­lege de­gree have backed Rom­ney in all but five South­ern and bor­der states (in­clud­ing one where he tied San­tor­um among them).

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, and he routed San­tor­um among them in Illinois by 2-to-1.

With all of these more af­flu­ent, sec­u­lar, and mod­er­ate groups in the party’s ma­na­geri­al wing, Rom­ney amassed even big­ger ad­vant­ages in Illinois than he did in Michigan and Ohio. That might be a one-state blip, but it could also sig­nal that San­tor­um’s hard-edged mes­sage, es­pe­cially on so­cial is­sues, is nar­row­ing his ap­peal as the race pro­ceeds.

San­tor­um’s found­a­tion is the mir­ror im­age of Rom­ney’s groups, par­tic­u­larly evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans, who flocked to him after the former sen­at­or from Pennsylvania re­vived his cam­paign with his three-state sweep on Feb. 7. The key lim­it con­strain­ing San­tor­um is that he still has not car­ried more than 31 per­cent of voters who do not identi­fy as evan­gel­ic­als in any state.

As long as these pat­terns hold, the GOP race will pro­duce very few ad­di­tion­al sur­prises. Rom­ney will main­tain a clear edge in states, mostly along the coasts, where evan­gel­ic­als will likely com­prise about only a third of the vote or less (and af­flu­ent, bet­ter-edu­cated voters also loom lar­ger), in­clud­ing Mary­land, Con­necti­c­ut, Delaware, New York, Cali­for­nia, and New Jer­sey. Al­though Rom­ney cut San­tor­um’s win­ning mar­gin among evan­gel­ic­als in Illinois, the former sen­at­or re­mains the fa­vor­ite in states where those voters will likely cast at least half of the GOP bal­lots, in­clud­ing in Louisi­ana, Texas, West Vir­gin­ia, Arkan­sas, Ken­tucky, and prob­ably North Car­o­lina and In­di­ana (where no re­cent exit polls are avail­able).

Still, if Rom­ney can match his pat­tern in Illinois — and win non-evan­gel­ic­als by a much lar­ger mar­gin than San­tor­um cap­tures evan­gel­ic­als — he might be able to sur­prise the former sen­at­or in states di­vided fairly closely between the two groups, such as Ore­gon, Neb­raska, and maybe North Car­o­lina. For all the fo­cus on Rom­ney’s troubles with the most ar­dent con­ser­vat­ives, San­tor­um’s in­ab­il­ity to reach bey­ond them looks like an even more dis­abling prob­lem after he lost re­sound­ingly in an­oth­er Mid­west­ern show­down.


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