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Friday 28th October 2011 | 11:06
Something is stirring in Mitt Romney’s polling numbers. Very quietly, he appears to be doing very well against Barack Obama in states the President carried handsomely in 2008.
In that election, Barack Obama blasted John McCain out of the water in the state of Maine, leading him by some 18 points (58% to 40%). Maine is a classic example of the geographical realignment of the two parties in the post-Civil Rights and post-Reagan era: the Democratic ‘collapse’ in the South and Texas is much commented on, but the Republican routing in their former New England stronghold receives less prominence. Maine voted Republican in all but three Presidential elections from 1856 until Bill Clinton moved it over to the Democratic column in 1992 – indeed, along with now deep blue Vermont, it is the only state that never voted for Franklin Roosevelt in any of his three landslide elections.
The ‘southernisation’ of the Republican Party, its anti-intellectual undertones and latterly a connection to a kind of Christian fervour not prevalent in the North East served to tarnish the party’s brand at a national level. These voters were loyal to a ‘Rockerfeller Republican’ (a former New York Governor) brand of fiscal conservatism, small government and social moderation, even liberalism. This is not the Republican Party they have seen in recent years, emphasised by the fact that the region swung away from George W Bush, just as he defeated John Kerry nationally (admittedly Kerry was a New England Senator himself, though Bush less obviously hails from Connecticut).
At a state level, New England’s voters are still perfectly happy to elect Republicans – each of the region’s states has had a moderate GOP Governor in the past decade, including Massachusetts’ very own Mitt Romney, most of whom proved popular. Republicans control the state legislatures in Maine and New Hampshire (the most reliably conservative state in New England) and hold three of the four Senate seats in these states. Indeed, Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special Senatorial election in January 2010 served as a prelude to the Democratic routing in the 2010 midterms (though only in New Hampshire did the Republicans actually win any House seats in that election, and every single Congressman in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont remains a Democrat).
Is it possible that Mitt Romney’s refusal to court the Tea Party vote in the primaries and come across as a moderate ready to be President is aimed at winning back these Republicans? If so, it seems to be working in broadening the map. Two recent New England polls highlight this: Maine-based pollster Critical Insights show the President leading Mitt Romney in the state by just a single point, while he leads Rick Perry in Maine by a 14 point margin. Public Policy Polling showed a similar picture in Connecticut, also won by Democratic candidates since 1992 (including Barack Obama by 23 points in 2008) with Romney only trailing the President by 2 points – Perry was behind by 12.
Barack Obama managed to expand the map in 2008 to an incredible degree – anyone predicting a Democratic win in Indiana or North Carolina and a near miss in Montana just a year before would have been seen as mad.
Mitt Romney, by presenting himself as a different kind of Republican to those offered to the electorate recent decades could build a similarly wide Coalition against a President who is looking increasingly electorally weak.
But the kind of boring businesslike Republican popular in the North East doesn’t seem to quite fit with this year’s national Republican mood.