Mitt Romney won another decisive victory in Nevada over the weekend, his third out of a total of five contests to date. In what might be a surprise to many, he carried the Silver State caucuses with strong support from conservatives – winning 57 percent of the “somewhat conservative” voters and 48 percent of the “very conservative” voters.
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.
To appreciate this, consider the following chart. It combines the votes of all five nomination battles to date – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada – to see how different ideological groups are breaking down in terms of support. (The cells in this chart are to be read top to bottom.)
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. Indeed, Romney is actually pulling in the second-largest number of “very conservative” votes, and among all conservatives (“somewhat” and “very”) he leads Gingrich, 39 percent to 35 percent.
Let’s look at the same issue another way. The above chart was read top-to-bottom, the next one is read left-to-right. That is, this chart answers the questions: what percentage of all the Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum voters are moderate/liberal, what percentage are somewhat conservative, what percentage are very conservative?
This is a very important piece of data, as it indicates that nearly two-thirds of the Romney vote is conservative. Gingrich and Santorum, of course, are pulling nearly 80 percent of their votes from conservatives, much more than Romney.
How does Romney’s coalition compare to past Republican nominees? Data is most readily available for the 2008 nomination battle, which McCain ended up winning handily. So let’s compare the ideological breakdown of Romney 2012 voters to McCain 2008 voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.
Let’s step back and take a broader view of matters. The following graph tracks the percentage of conservatives in the voting coalitions of the winners and runners-up in New Hampshire for 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.
This picture suggests that Romney’s coalition, at least in the Granite State, is relatively conservative. Not nearly as much as Buchanan’s was, but almost as much as George W. Bush’s was in 2000.
In the final analysis, four crucial points are worth making.
(1) It simply is untrue that Romney is not winning conservatives. In fact, a super-majority of Romney voters are in fact conservative and he has won more conservatives than any other candidate. The most conservative voters are not the bulk of his coalition, for sure, but overall his support is coming from the right side of the political spectrum.
(2) The Romney coalition in 2012 is more moderate than the Romney 2008 coalition was. In most of the early contests – at least outside the South – Romney secured the support of very conservative voters four years ago. That is not the case this time around, not nearly to the same extent. Even so, his coalition in 2012 is a hybrid of the McCain ’08 and Romney ’08 vote.
(3) This is a virtually unbeatable coalition, if he can maintain it. Romney has basically situated himself exactly in the middle of the GOP electorate: a plurality of his voters are somewhat conservative, with the remaining sampling from the moderates and the very conservatives. To defeat this coalition, an opponent would have to either steal some of his very conservative voters or cobble together a coalition that includes the far left and the far right of the electorate. Either would be a very difficult task to accomplish.
(4) This is not to say that conservative voters are happy with Romney. After all, they do not get to pick the candidates who appear on the ballot. A plurality of conservatives have, to date, preferred Romney over anybody else, but that does not mean he would be their first choice if candidates like Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, or Paul Ryan had tossed their hats into the ring.