Mitt Romney’s Voters May Not Save the GOP After All

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Don't look now, but Trump is doing well among the non-Evangelical voters Mitt won to beat Santorum.Photo: Darren McCollester/2012 Getty Images

The bedtime story that “Establishment” Republicans read to themselves after days dominated by the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is that once the nominating contest gets by the Bible-obsessed precincts of Iowa and the Deep South, whichever candidate emerges in the “moderate” lane will win, just like Mitt Romney did in 2012 after Rick Santorum threw him a scare for a bit. 

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report wrote a sophisticated version of this story for FiveThirtyEight in November, emphasizing the disproportional representation of blue states in GOP convention delegates. But it, too, relied on the assumption that blue-state Republican primary voters won’t support extremist candidates; Carson, Cruz, and Trump are adjudged as facing “doom” in the headline. 

Now comes the empirically minded journalist Ron Brownstein with an analysis of the GOP primary electorate that should keep some Republicans awake with night terrors. 

Using 2008, 2012, and current polling data, Brownstein divides the Republican electorate into four roughly equal groups divided by religion and education: college-educated Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals, and non-college-educated Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. In the last two cycles, he says, educational levels weren’t that important in determining candidate preference:

Both in 2008 and 2012, there was no ma­jor dif­fer­ence in the vot­ing choices of blue- and white-col­lar evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans across the key states, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished res­ults from the exit polls in those years provided by Edis­on Re­search, which con­ducts the sur­veys. The big­ger di­vide was between voters who were and were not evan­gel­ic­al: Rom­ney, for in­stance, won about half of the former, but just un­der one-third of the lat­ter, ac­cord­ing to a cu­mu­lat­ive ana­lys­is of 2012 exit polls con­duc­ted by ABC Poll­ster Gary Langer.

But in this cycle, education levels — generally an indicator of class — are pretty big differentiators. In particular, Ted Cruz is leading strongly with college-educated Evangelicals, while Cruz and Donald Trump are in a close battle for blue-collar Evangelicals. Brownstein views this competition as potentially decisive. Yet he also notes that Trump’s very best group among the four is blue-collar non-Evangelicals — the “opposite corner” of the party from Cruz’s stronghold, and a group that was part of Romney’s coalition in 2012. There’s really only one quadrant of primary voters that the Establishment candidates are (collectively) dominating, and that’s the college-educated non-Evangelicals. The important thing to understand is that there aren’t enough of them to control the nomination if another candidate is leading with the other three, which Trump, in particular, has a good chance of doing. Additionally, the voters in this quadrant will have even less influence than their numbers would indicate so long as they are divided among Rubio, Christie, Kasich, and Bush.

Perhaps at some point after New Hampshire all but one of these candidates will withdraw, but even then the survivor could face an uphill climb. Yes, said candidate will then consolidate an awful lot of elected official endorsements. This does not, however, seem to be a year in which Republican voters are anxiously waiting for elite signals to emerge from the Beltway and other power centers like white smoke from the Vatican to indicate when “the party decides.”

The class-warfare element that Trump has introduced into the Republican nominating contest means that the non-Evangelicals who united to smite Rick Santorum and anoint Mitt Romney in 2012 may be divided. And that could be bad, bad news for the Establishment and its sleeping habits.