Which candidate gives Republicans the best chance to defeat President Barack Obama in November?
Brian Snyder / Reuters
One can’t infer too much from Tuesday’s exit poll data since Tuesday’s electorate wasn’t the one which will show up November. But if you were a Republican, and assuming that victory in November were your highest priority, would you have rather have a candidate (such as Rick Santorum) who did not win a plurality of college-educated voters in Ohio, who did not win a plurality of voters in suburban counties, who did not win working women, and who did not win moderates?
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Or would you rather have one (like Mitt Romney) who did not carry rural counties, who did not win a plurality of evangelical Christians, who didn’t do well among voters for whom sharing the same religious faith as their candidate is a top priority, and who did not win the most conservative voters in Tennessee and Georgia?
The November electorate will be much bigger and — by definition — much closer to the nation’s political center than the one we saw on Tuesday, and Romney won in places the Republicans need to win: in affluent suburbia, for example. In Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati and its suburbs, Romney defeated Santorum by 20 percentage points.
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That doesn’t necessarily mean that Romney will carry Hamilton County in November if he’s the GOP nominee; Obama carried it in the 2008 general election with 53 percent — his national average in the popular vote. George W. Bush had carried it in 2004 with 52 percent and in 2000 with 54 percent. But Romney’s victory in Hamilton County on Tuesday would at least seem to give the GOP a better chance to carry that county against Obama.
In affluent suburban Williamson County, Tenn., near Nashville, Romney defeated Santorum by four points. Fifty-two percent of people in Williamson County have a college degree, according to the U.S. Census, compared to 23 percent for Tennessee as a whole. Romney won the kind of highly educated people who tend to live in urban and suburban America and not in rural towns: people with post-graduate education much preferred Romney to his rivals in Ohio.
Romney also showed more appeal to working women voters on Tuesday — in Ohio, he won 43 percent of working women, while Santorum netted 35 percent.
And in Ohio, Romney also beat Santorum among single women: 45 percent to 28 percent for Santorum. Surely one of the urgent tasks for the Republicans in November is to be competitive among female voters: the GOP can’t afford to cede women to the Democrats as they did in 2008, when Obama won female voters by 13 points over McCain.
Another finding that might be encouraging to Republicans who want to appeal to the broader November electorate is that Romney did better than Santorum among people who did not rate religion as an especially significant marker: among voters who said it was not important that a candidate shares their religious beliefs, Romney won 43 percent in Ohio, to Santorum’s 31 percent.
None of this is to take away from Santorum’s achievement: he won 91 of 95 counties in Tennessee and he won 69 of 88 counties in Ohio. He ran nine points ahead of Romney in Tennessee. But in both states, Santorum mostly won the less populated rural counties while Romney did better in cities and suburban counties.
Santorum beat Romney by 28 points among Ohio Republicans who called themselves “very conservative” on social issues.
But Romney, who once supported abortion rights and was elected governor of one of the most liberal states in the nation, won by 18 points among voters who called themselves moderate or liberal on social issues.
One of Romney’s liabilities is that social conservatives cannot bring themselves to trust him; they don’t see him as genuinely conservative — despite his claim that he is “severely conservative” and that on same-sex marriage, for instance, he “kept Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of same sex marriage,” as he said in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month.
Even if Romney chose an impeccably conservative running mate, that might not win their trust. If Romney is the Republican nominee, we don’t know if some conservatives will forsake Romney as some of them abandoned McCain in 2008. Romney may be no more appealing to staunch conservatives than was McCain in 2008.
But in the fall campaign Romney would have a great advantage that McCain didn’t have when he faced Obama in 2008. Voters– especially small-government conservatives — can now see Obama’s beliefs in action: the $830 billion stimulus, the failed Solyndra grant, the transformation of the nation’s health care system, and increases in taxes on upper-income people (included in the 2010 health care bill) are all now a reality. In 2008 they were only a possibility.