Is Mitt Romney the best remaining Republican candidate to go up against Barack Obama in the fall? Or would Rick Santorum, the most likely alternative, fare better in a general election? An experimental study conducted by the firm Evolving Strategies suggests Romney may have the advantage over Santorum in a general election, but not for the most obvious reasons.

First, a note about the survey model. Evolving Strategies uses experimental data to understand how communication and advertising strategies affect voters, much in the way product advertisers determine how to craft television and radio commercials. In this experiment, survey respondents were broken into three groups. The first group watched two television advertisements about Mitt Romney: a positive one and one attacking him. The second group watched two similar ads about Santorum, one positive and one negative. The third group, the control, watched nonpolitical ads. Then, each respondent answered questions to gauge how he or she would vote in a general election. This method attempts to measure the effect of the campaign ads on voting preferences.

The results of such an experiment can be predictive. In December, when Newt Gingrich had reached his peak popularity within the Republican presidential field, Evolving Strategies conducted a similar survey among Republican primary voters. The most telling result was that the former House speaker seemed to be very vulnerable to negative ads. Those who viewed both positive and negative ads about Gingrich were considerably less supportive of him than those in the control group. In other words, the negative ads worked. The experiment prefigured what weeks later became reality, when a barrage of negative advertising from Romney and his super-PAC effectively sank Gingrich.

So what did this latest survey discover? The results suggest that Romney is the superior general election candidate. While the control group—those respondents who watched nonpolitical advertisements—split their support evenly at 40 percent between Obama and Romney (standing in as a “generic” Republican candidate), those who watched the Santorum ad treatment, both positive and negative, favored Obama to Santorum 45 percent to 38 percent.

On the other hand, those who watched the Romney ad treatments favored Romney over Obama 44 percent to 35 percent. That’s a statistically significant difference. Based on these results, Romney would perform better against Obama than would Santorum.

Why is that the case? The general election ads the respondents viewed were specially created for this study. The positive ad the Romney group watched featured two sides of the Romney pitch: an explanation and defense of his business experience, and a contrast between his free-market vision for the economy and Obama’s government-driven vision. “President Obama’s brand of capitalism sends your money to his friends’ companies,” Romney says in the video. “I will, instead, make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs and innovators and job creators, and get America working again.”

The negative Romney ad, something akin to what Obama might run in the fall campaign, focuses on Romney’s years at Bain Capital. “Why isn’t Romney concerned about the poor?” the text reads after video of Romney’s post-Florida primary gaffe. The ad ends with Romney arguing with protesters about the nature of corporations. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people,” says a haggard-looking Romney in the hot Iowa sun. “Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets?”

The results suggest this line of attack against Romney may not hold up in an election about the economy, particularly if Romney rebuts the criticisms by directly challenging the president’s own economic policies. In fact, when the survey asked respondents whether or not they believed Obama’s economic policies would work, those in the Romney group were less inclined to believe they would work than those in the control group.

What about the Santorum ads? The positive ad focuses first on Santorum’s vision for the country. “It’s an election about what kind of country you’re going to leave the next generation,” Santorum intones. “Are we going to be a country that believes, as our Founders did, that our rights don’t come from the government, they come from a much higher authority?” Following that, Santorum clarifies his position on contraception by explaining that his “public policy position is that this contraception should be available.” The ad also shows Santorum touting his economic plan, quoting the Wall Street Journal’s definition of it as “supply-side economics for the working man.”

The negative ad features a string of video clips showing Santorum discussing his socially conservative beliefs. On contraception: “I don’t think it works. I think it’s harmful to women. I think it’s harmful to our society.” On abortion: “I would advocate that any doctor that performs an abortion should be criminally charged for doing so.” On social issues as a whole: “These are important public policy issues.”

The focus on social issues (but not necessarily the substance of his positions) would apparently hurt Santorum against Obama, but the breakdown doesn’t cut across gender lines. Santorum doesn’t perform any worse with women than he does with men—37 percent of men support him and 38 percent of women. Both Romney and the “generic Republican” of the control group have the same one-point margin of difference between the genders.

The more substantial difference is how Santorum performs with college-educated voters compared with voters without college degrees. In the control group, Obama trailed among college-educated voters, 43 percent to 38 percent; in the Romney group, Obama trailed by an even greater margin, 53 percent to 37 percent. Romney’s 10-point swing among the college educated, among those who viewed the ads, is statistically significant.

But college-educated voters overwhelmingly prefer Obama to Santorum, 57 percent to 33 percent. But Santorum performs slightly better (39 percent to Obama’s 38 percent) with non--college-educated voters than does the generic Republican (38 percent to Obama’s 41 percent).

There are, of course, limits to the survey’s conclusions. Respondents watched two minutes of content rather than experiencing two months of post-convention campaigning. But the advertisement treatments are instructive in which messages can work for Republicans in the general election campaign, and which can’t.

If voters continue to worry about the economy, and Obama’s handling of it, Romney looks well-suited to respond. If Santorum is the nominee and the economy is still stuck in the doldrums, voters will want to hear how his economic vision contrasts with the president’s. But with a media culture primed to focus on Santorum’s social views, even if the candidate himself tries to steer the discussion back toward the economy, the GOP could be in a worse position to take back the White House.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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