Romney, conservatives and conservatives

Jay Cost did a little mythbusting Monday regarding conservative support for Mitt Romney:

The conventional wisdom is that conservatives are dissatisfied with Romney, whose electoral coalition is comprised mostly of moderates and even liberal voters. That might be true of conservative media elites, but the broader electorate of conservatives have been much more amenable to Romney.


No doubt, Romney is dominating among moderates and liberals, but his haul is just as strong among “somewhat conservative” voters. It is only among the “very conservative” that Gingrich has a lead – although even this is much less than what one might have thought based on the way the media has been covering the story.


RTWT, as Jay has plenty of insights about how Romney’s voter base has changed from 2008 and the potential strength of his coalition. It’s also a detailed example of one of Jay’s enduring truths of elections: strong partisans do not dominate the political process. I would almost be tempted to end the summary here, as people who are sufficiently absorbed with politics to be reading (not to mention writing) are likely those most in need of a reminder that we are not all that representative a sample, even of Repbulicans or conservatives. That message might be even more important the day after Rick Santorum sweeps Romney in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado (an impressive feat, but one involving low turnout caucuses where Romney did not camapign much).

However, as useful as Jay’s analysis is as a tonic, I doubt he would claim it tells the entire story of the GOP primary campaign. Notably, Jay wrote earlier this month about the growing regional divide among conservatives:

Those in the North and Midwest are more sympathetic to Romney, viewing him perhaps as one of their own. But when we turn Southward, the links between Romney and the right seems to be much more tenuous. What is so fascinating about this is that we’re talking about people in different states who answer the ideological question similarly. This is geography, not ideology.

I’m not sure that last bit (emphasis in original) is entirely true, depending on what Jay means by it. It seems entirely possible to me that Northerners who self-identify as conservative do not always mean the same thing as Southerners do when self-identifying as conservative. And the same is possibly true of other regions. Indeed, based on last night’s results in Minnesota and Missouri, it’s not clear that the Midwest is as sympathetic to Romney as Jay may think. Minnesota ends up looking more like Iowa than Iowa, let alone New Hampshire, Florida or Nevada (where, as Jay notes, Mitt won 57% of the somewhat conservative voters and 48% of the very conservative voters).


The easy explanation of some of these regional differences would be religion, but in examining that issue, Sean Trende adds the following caveat: “religion could be a stand-in for ideology, and that, regardless of self-identification, a self-described conservative evangelical Republican is significantly to the right of a self-described conservative who is non-evangelical.”

In sum, while I basically agree with Jay that political junkies tend to overstate the case that Romney does not appeal to conservatives, I also think we should be careful when we throw around the conservative label. To take a more obvious example, many look at polls showing twice as many identify as conservative than identify as liberal without considering that: (a) some still self-identify as conservative Democrats and are likely more liberal than moderate or liberal Republicans; and (b) many self-identifying moderates are functionally liberal, but have fled the label. Relying on self-identification may be a necessary evil in political polling. However, in a nation as diverse and sprawling as the US, we need to always keep in mind the limitations of self-identification and the necessity of any candidate appealing to more than one type of conservative.

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