The 2012 Republican Primary season is remembered for its buffoonery: Rick Perry’s ‘oops’ moment, Newt Gingrich’ moon colony, Rick Santorum’s seemingly endless discussion of what should and should not be happening in the bedroom. Mitt Romney, from the beginning, was the only sober and serious candidate in the field (save brief and uninspired runs by John Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.) But after election day, there may be a more important take away from primary season – Romney was actually challenged by these candidates.
At the time, it was said that Romney was not conservative enough and therefore failed to attract the GOP base voters. After the Illinois primary on March 20th when Romney effectively clinched the nomination, I looked at a county-by-county analysis of the primary results thus far (you can still see the map I used for my analysis here). This was my conclusion.
Romney has won the northeast, he’s won everything west of the Rockies and he’s won the urban and suburban areas of every state…Santorum and Gingrich are winning the McCain strongholds of 2008 and Romney is essentially winning the 2008 Democratic territory in the Republican primary.
What does this mean for a potential match-up between Romney and President Obama? I see three potential outcomes. One possibility is Obama’s weaknesses have allowed Romney to make inroads into Democratic ground. Romney will win those suburban areas around the cities (like Joliet outside of Chicago, where he won tonight) and his strength in the cities will weaken Obama’s base support.
The second possibility is Romney is winning the GOP primary with fool’s gold. He is capturing the wealthy and suburbanites now, but only because he is more palatable than Santorum or Gingrich. They will return to Obama come general election. On top of that, he will continue to have weak support from the Republican base and will end up suppressing turnout among those rural voters he is losing now.
The third, and most likely, possibility is a combination of the two. Romney wins over suburbanites but loses turnout advantages among strong conservatives, particularly in rural areas. Obama loses some of those wealthy and suburban voters that gave him the 2008 advantage, but maintains strong base support and turnout numbers in the cities and may even gain some old school populist support from the countryside.
So what happened? Romney lost Joliet and obviously the election but where and why he lost are more difficult to see. Let’s look again at Ohio counties as a proxy of the nation (since Ohio has counted all of their vote and Ohio was the center of the campaign season, it serves this purpose nicely). We are looking to answer three questions: Did President Obama lose support in the cities? Did Mitt Romney gain support in the country? And did Romney poach Obama vote in the suburbs? Let’s start with the cities…
In the seven most populous Ohio counties (containing Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Toledo, Dayton and Canton respectively), President Obama’s vote total remained essentially unchanged; he tallied over 1.43 million in Ohio cities and lost only 9,133 – just .64%. This confirms just how impressive the Democratic ‘Get Out The Vote’ efforts were. Despite significant decreases in both enthusiasm and support for the president over the last four years, the Obama campaign was able to essentially recreate their historic 2008 electorate.
Governor Romney’s vote total was, similarly, unchanged – just a .42% increase in GOP vote in the seven Ohio cities. Republican support for Romney in cities during primary season did not translate to increased support come election day as Romney was unable to sway Obama voters in Democratic strongholds to his cause.
The story in rural counties is starkly different. In the 33 counties that recorded less than 20,000 votes, President Obama lost 8.4% of his vote total from 2008. But these lost votes did not go to Romney; in the same rural counties, Romney actually lost .6% from McCain’s (very low) 2008 totals. In the Republican primary, rural voters did not support Mitt and that continued into the general election where, despite their disappointment with the president, these voters voted with their feet and stayed home.
Gov. Romney’s worst county, in terms of lost vote from 2008, was Gallia County; he lost 36% of the vote John McCain received – over 2000 votes (less than 6,000 votes were cast for Romney there). Gallia County is in the southern corner of Ohio, abutting West Virginia – it is home to America’s first Bob Evan’s restaurant. The Romney campaign’s failure is epitomized by its inability to capture these Gallia County voters.
Already we’ve seen that Obama lost minimal support in the cities, and Romney actually lost some support in rural areas where he needed to improve on McCain’s position. The suburbs were clearly Romney’s strength, but he did not do well enough to overcome weaknesses in other regions. In the Ohio’s remaining 48 counties (those with 20,000 voters or more but not containing a major city), Governor Romney improved over John McCain by 5.3% – over 70,000 votes. But while the president lost support in these areas, it was just 10,000 votes – only 1% less than his 2008 totals – and not nearly enough to turn the state to Romney.
That measure of suburban is fairly broad. If you look at the more densely populated suburban counties (those with 40,000 voters or more) Gov. Romney did even better – improving over McCain by 6.9%. But he was not capturing former Obama voters (or if he was, the Democratic party was finding new voters to replace the ones they had lost). In the same counties, Obama actually improved his 2008 vote total by 1.6%.
The cacophony of numbers perhaps disguises the underlying point. Romney had an inherent weakness that was clear far back in the primaries. Rural Republicans did not like him and they continued not to like him up until election day. So where Obama’s support was the most fragile and the hardest to turnout, Romney, as a candidate, was the least appealing. And where Romney’s support was the strongest, it did not come at the expense of Obama – he maintained strong support in the same regions. Because Romney and Obama’s natural strengths and weaknesses were geographically aligned, it was as if Romney was playing an away game – forced to compete on Obama’s electoral field.
This data suggest that some popular theories about why Romney lost are not supported by the evidence. That Romney lost because he was too extreme or too conservative, for instance, seems indefensible based on the votes. Romney won the Republican moderates – he did better than John McCain by a significant margin in the swing areas of the country; he won Independents by 5 points where McCain lost them by 8 points (and in both elections Independents were the same percentage of the electorate as a whole).
Where he failed was in getting out Republican voters, most significantly in the most rural areas – the Republicans strongest territory. And Obama, consequently, succeeded in generating Democratic vote in his strongholds. While Republicans should work on re-branding, should attempt to appeal more to women, should reach out to Hispanic communities and should try to become the party of young people, that is not the root cause of their election loss. In the next election, Republicans should not nominate a candidate that, rightly or wrongly, a large percentage of the electorate never liked.