ANALYSIS

For Romney, South Carolina and Florida Are No New Hampshire

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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
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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