Mitt Romney and Hardcore Conservatives: He's Got a Shot

There is an ongoing narrative that Mitt Romney has been rejected by a large swathe of the GOP, that the party is in disarray, and that conservatism is about to become irrelevant.

Don’t believe everything you read or hear.

The kernel of truth behind the speculation is a factually correct statement: Romney has yet to capture the demographic of voters who consider themselves very conservative. Voters in this group tend to vote based on social and pocketbook issues. As Michael Barone has pointed out, they are the group Charles Murray, in his recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, labeled “Fishtown.” They are deeply suspicious of “The Establishment.”

But the factually correct statement needs to be considered in light of another one: Romney continues to do better and better with conservative voters overall. According to the Ohio exit polls – more significant than those from Kansas, where no one but Santorum competed – the former Pennsylvania Senator got 48% of the “very conservative” vote, Romney got 30%. But of those who considered themselves “conservative” together, Romney trailed only by 6 points, 35% to 41%. Among conservatives, Romney achieved virtual parity.

More tellingly, perhaps, among those who “strongly support” the Tea Party, Romney trailed Santorum by 9 points, 32% to 41%. But among those who “somewhat support” the Tea Party, he actually beat Santorum, 41% to 38%. These are voters who will be among the most energized to defeat President Barack Obama in November. Taken together, Santorum only edged Romney 39% to 36% among supporters of the Tea Party.

The sticking point is white evangelical, or white born-again Christians. Here Santorum dominated, 47% to 30%. But Ralph Reed, one of the most articulate and accomplished spokesmen for the evangelical community, pointed out that the trend before Florida was one of Romney’s increasing evangelical vote share. Romney won 14% of the evangelical vote in Iowa, 22% in South Carolina, and 34% in Florida. Ohio reverses that trend, but it is far from clear that it does so permanently. 

Apparently, the candidate preferences of conservative voters are not fixed. They are not what political scientists would call “exogenous.” Rather, they are “endogenous,” meaning they are shaped by the process of which they are a part.  

Of course, no one is suggesting that Romney will get all of the very conservative voters. Some will never let go of their doubts about his pro-life conversion, or fidelity to pro-family principles; others will not see past Romneycare to the Tenth Amendment, which says that states can do things that the federal government cannot. Whatever the reason, Romney will almost certainly never sweep them. He may not even get a majority of their voices.

But he does not have to. As the numbers make clear, Romney could be within reach, for the first time, of a majority coalition of moderate, conservative, and very conservative voters in the GOP – not just the plurality that has allowed him to win thus far. A majority coalition would re-write the narrative of the campaign.

This is not the first time that many in the commentariat have tried to sell us a story line of liberal inevitability and conservative demise. In 2008, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla penned an article titled “The Perils of Populist Chic” in which he pronounced conservatism dead. Obama’s victory, Lilla wrote, had left the forces of conservatism in disarray. The movement was spent, unable to generate new ideas. Then, of course, the Tea Party happened.

The same people who wanted you to believe that conservatism was dead in 2008 now want you to think that Romney is the weakest front-runner in a generation, that a brokered convention is inevitable, and that Obama will win in a cake-walk in November.

But history didn’t end with Hegel and the Prussian state. It doesn’t have to end in 2012 with an Obama victory.

All eyes will be on the primary contests in Mississippi and Alabama on Tuesday. These states are as “hard-core” as they come. If Romney can continue to increase his share of evangelical and “very conservative” voters – and initial polling in both Mississippi and Alabama suggests that he is doing quite well – he will take another stride towards demonstrating the following: Obama will face a united and resolved GOP in November.  

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore