Is there a “Romney effect”?
posted at 11:47 am on March 10, 2012 by Karl
Contrary to Supernarrative Wednesday (which spilled over to Thursday), Mitt Romney is likely not as weak as much of the media claims. Political scientist Seth Masket notes that Romney has about 43% of the delegates to date, less than McCain racked up by this point in 2008 — but under the 2008 delegate allocation rules, Romney would have roughly 60%, just as McCain did. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar notes Romney has won a larger share of the vote than McCain in 14 of the 22 states that have held binding primaries or caucuses so far — and some of the primaries where McCain did better were held after McCain locked up the nomination. Nate Silver looked at the likely result if Newt Gingrich dropped out, concluding that even after receiving most of Gingrich vote, Rick Santorum would still have trailed Romney in the overall popular vote — about 45 percent to 38 percent. Indeed, if Romney stays on his current track in the different regions of the country (including pulling only 25% in the South), he will likely amass the 1,144 delegates needed for the GOP nomination. Tim Cavanaugh argues Obama would be a lock to beat Romney, mostly based on low turnout in the GOP primaries; however, high primary turnout has not consistently predicted general election success in the past.
Nevertheless, as Sean Trende notes, it remains possible that Romney will fall short of winning 1,144 delegates and may need the GOP equivalent of superdelegates to put him over the top.
Romney’s underlying problems are demographic. The Romney/Santorum narrative is built on Mitt’s weakness with the working class. However, Karl Rove notes that on Super Tuesday, Romney nearly erased the gap with non-college graduates. If Romney is nominated, he may yet carry a “wealth problem,” but he would be running against someone unloved by the bitter clinger demographic.
The demo Romney has yet to crack is white evangelicals (assuming African-Americans again vote overwhelmingly for Democrats). As Harry Enten and Sean Trende were among the first to note, states with large evangelical populations tend to vote more heavily against Romney (although Trende also notes that this may be a proxy for the difference between Northern and Southern conservatism; that black Republicans prefer other candidates to Romney also suggests this, but the sample is small). Pew notes Romney has fared significantly better among non-evangelical voters than among evangelicals in every state for which data are available (ironically, Santorum has not won the Catholic vote in any state for which data are available, which suggests Romney’s weakness with evangelicals is not pure anti-Mormon bias). Considering the percentages of white evangelicals and Catholics by state, it should surprise no one that Romney lost states like Oklahoma and Tennessee on Super Tuesday (although the delegate allocation ultimately mutes this effect).
The remaining questions are whether Romney can make inroads with white evangelicals during the primaries and if not, what it means should Romney win the GOP nomination. Mitt gets a number of opportunities to try to win evangelical votes this month: Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri all tilt significantly more evangelical than Catholic. Louisiana and Illinois tilt Catholic, but not by the sort of margin these other states lean evangelical. The sparse polling to date suggests competitive races, but the topline results tell us nothing about the evangelical vote.
What happens if Romney becomes the GOP nominee? A November 2011 Pew poll showed Republicans who say Mormonism is not a Christian religion were less likely to support Romney for the GOP nomination, but seemingly would overwhelmingly back him in a run against Obama in the general election. Might evangelicals stay home? A January YouGov poll found 31% of Southern evangelicals say they would not vote for a qualified Mormon for president, yet only 12% said they whould stay home if Romney is the nominee — a similar result as that given for Gingrich and Rick Perry. Moreover, Romney did as well against Obama as Gingrich or Perry in this poll.
That 12% number may be comforting, but the 31% number may give some pause to consider whether an anti-Mormon “Bradley effect” might lurk for a Mitt Romney candidacy. Obviously, the answer to that question is unknown at this time. However, the states in which a “Romney effect” would be most likely also tend to be the reddest of the Red States, won heavily by McCain in the face of a political perfect storm favoring Barack Obama. Any Romney effect would have to be shockingly large to matter in most of the South. A Romney effect could conceivably make North Carolina and Virginia more difficult to win. But even in that unlikely scenario, it is unclear that Santorum or Gingrich would be a better candidate in either state.