For Romney, South Carolina and Florida Are No New Hampshire

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Joe Burbank, Pool)
National Journal
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Nancy Cook
Jan. 11, 2012, 8:35 a.m.

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.


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