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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

Romney's Red State Blues

Mitt Romney's failure to connect with rural conservatives may not lose him the Republican nomination, but could give him a serious headache against Obama in November.

In this year’s Republican primary, talk of a party at war with itself is far from a cliche. Of the 15 states so far carried by Mitt Romney in this contest, just three were carried by the Republicans in 2008: Idaho and Arizona, both with vast Mormon populations, and Alaska, with its fairly moderate wealthy brand of Republicanism. Conversely, of the 10 carried by Rick Santorum, not to mention the Georgia and South Carolina, taken by Newt Gingrich, just two were won by President Obama in 2008.

The Romney campaign might attempt to spin this by saying that while Santorum is winning in states like Alabama and North Dakota, which will always elect Republicans, their candidate is winning where in matters: in those key swing states like Florida and Ohio  that the GOP will need to carry in order to kick Barack Obama out of the White House.

A closer inspection of the localised results, however, reveals a more frightening picture for the former Massachusetts Governor, if, as still seems likely, he drags himself over the finishing line of the Republican nomination.

Take Ohio, for example, a Presidential bellwether that has backed the winning side in all but two general elections since 1904. A fortnight ago, it was carried by Mr Romney by a mere 10,000 votes. Interestingly, however, of the the state’s 88 counties, Romney carried just 19 of them to Santorum’s 69 - just as when Barack Obama narrowly beat John McCain in the state, he carried just 22 counties to the Arizona Senator’s 66. And the similarity of these figures is no coincidence: in those 22 counties, largely urban, carried by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney led Rick Santorum 42% to 34% - but in the 66 McCain counties, Santorum led 40% to 34%, winning 59 of them to Romney’s 7.

Even in states where he’s proving victorious overall, from Michigan to Florida, Mitt Romney is being shut out of conservative counties east of the Rockies (therefore with few Mormons)- what Sarah Palin might term ‘real America’.

But will this hurt him in the general election in November? Will he be a tainted nominee or will Republicans rally to his flag to defeat the hated Obama? The previous race is worthy of comparison.

The 2008 Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was unquestionably bitter, but largely about personality rather than policy or ideology; an energising contest to prove once and for all that either a black man or a woman could become President and credibly lead the party and nation. Indeed, the success of the respective campaigns were shown by vast rallies attended by thousands a volunteers - in stark contrast to the meagre outpouring of energy for this year’s Republican contest.

But there were moments at which that nominating contest did become ideological, or at least cultural. During the Pennsylvania primary, Obama famously reflected on rural Democratic voters along the following lines: “it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Both the Clinton and McCain campaigns pounced on the remark, and were able to present an idea of a candidate wholly out of touch with rural working class voters, who had traditionally formed a large part of the Democratic coalition.

In states with large numbers of such voters: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, not only did Hillary Clinton beat Obama by as much as 43%, but come the general election - a singular disaster for the Republican Party nationwide - most counties in these states actually swung away from the Democratic Party. Senator McCain won these areas with an even higher percentage vote than George W Bush did in 2004, an astounding fact in amid a nationwide tale of Democratic triumph. As Mr Obama had never connected with this demographic and had ostracised them during the primary, many traditional Democrats amongst them probably chose to stay at home rather than vote for someone they saw as an elite urban liberal.

If Republicans in rural Ohio or in the Florida panhandle take a similar view of Mitt Romney, as many seem to be doing, it could be disastrous for him across large numbers of the key states he needs in November. As James Carville famously said “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, with Alabama in the middle”. Mitt Romney will need to work hard to get these Alabamas, present almost everywhere in America, to back him in large enough numbers this autumn.