Mitt Romney won solid victories Tuesday night in Arizona and Michigan, two important swing states. How did he do it, and what does it mean?
Let’s start answering these questions by comparing Romney’s voting coalitions in both states in 2008 and 2012, first by socioeconomic status.
This is a pattern we have time and again this season: Romney’s voting coalition in 2012 is slightly more upscale in terms of socioeconomic status – more educated and wealthier – than it was in 2008. In both states, we see that Romney did better with all socioeconomic groups in 2012 than he did four years prior, but his level of improvement last night was greater among the upscale.
What about ideological groups? Again, let’s compare Romney ’08 against Romney ’12.
This is one of the most fascinating shifts in the Romney coalition over the last two presidential elections. Relative to 2008, Romney is doing significantly worse among the “very conservative” this time around, but this has been more than balanced out by gains among liberals, moderates, and especially the “somewhat conservative.” Put another way, even though Romney is still pretty well to the right of John McCain was in 2008 – at least in terms of their voting coalitions – he has moved noticeably toward the center this time around.
Indeed, the results we saw tonight in Arizona and Michigan are strikingly similar to those we have seen all season long.
Time after time, Romney has done very well with somewhat conservative voters, quite well with moderates and liberals, and then he’s at his weakest among the very conservative. This was true last night, as well as pretty much the whole primary season.
These results strongly suggest that Romney has successfully positioned himself almost exactly in the middle of the Republican electorate. This is far and away his greatest advantage moving forward, as it makes it very difficult for any candidate to forge a voting coalition large enough to topple Romney. Gingrich or Santorum would have to cobble together a strange bedfellows, left-right coalition of the most moderate and most conservative Republicans to defeat him. If you cannot win 50 percent of the vote outright, this is the best way to win – splinter your opposition onto two sides.
This points to the two major points to draw from yesterday evening. First, Mitt Romney has essentially failed to win a majority, or even an overwhelming plurality of Republican voters to date. His average vote haul in the prior states was roughly in line with what we saw last night in Arizona and Michigan – carrying somewhere around 40 percent of the vote. Second, no candidate has yet found a way to topple him, because the non-Romney voters are divided on opposite sides of him. Thus, while Romney is not going to surge to the nomination as the majority choice of the party, it is very difficult to see how any of the declared candidates topples him.
The next big test for Romney – and perhaps the final one – will be next week in Ohio. If he can do what he did in Arizona and Michigan, dominate among the “somewhat conservative” voters and hold his own with the rest, he should again grab 40 percent of the vote and be very hard to defeat.
A footnote: it seems that, in a reasonably close race in November, the Republican nominee will have a very difficult time winning Michigan. Consider that the favorable/unfavorable rating of the auto bailout was 44-51, and this is among an overwhelmingly conservative, Republican group. In all likelihood, the entire Michigan electorate views it favorably, and overwhelmingly so. Thus, President Obama has a major leg up in the Wolverine State, even though bailouts remain generally unpopular nationwide.