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Who Can Beat Obama?

An experiment shows the scales tilt toward Romney.

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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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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