Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Rick Santorum the Better General Election Candidate?

The conventional wisdom has always held that the most moderate candidate in the primary has the best chance for their party to win the Presidential election in November.  It’s simple: with about 70% of the American public declaring themselves as either a Democrat or Republican, that leaves 30% of the public up for grabs.  In most strategists’ views, the candidate best able to capture the majority of that 30% is the candidate with his views most closely aligned with that segment of the electorate. 

This has certainly been the view among most political strategists regarding the 2012 election; Mitt Romney, who served a term governing the deep-blue state of Massachusetts, is the most moderate in the GOP field and is therefore the likeliest to defeat President Obama in the fall.

While once probably true, it is perhaps time to revisit this theory after months of campaigning have taken their toll on each of the candidates.


It’s no secret that the Republican base is not thrilled about having Mitt Romney be the standard bearer of the party.  Though he has moved very far to the right since his days as a Massachusetts moderate, there is still a great resentment toward him from grassroots supporters.  In fact, this is probably a direct result from Mr. Romney moving so far right; by flip-flopping on so many issues in order to appease the base of his party, Mitt Romney has developed a reputation among them (as well as everyone else) as being untrustworthy. 

Further, it’s beginning to become clear that speaking the language of the Tea Party is awkward for Mr. Romney.  In the most well known example, while Mitt Romney was addressing a crowd at CPAC, he referred to himself as a “severe conservative”.  His truly conservative colleagues, as well as conservative commentators and editorial writers, cringed at the sound bite.  

In CNN’s exit polling of the Michigan Primary, a full 44% of Mr. Romney’s voters had “reservations” about their choice, while a slim majority (51%) of Mr. Santorum’s voters chose him out of dislike for a different candidate.  However, in that same poll, 40% of Rick Santorum’s voters had reservations about their choice

What this data can tell us is that the voters right now are really choosing their least-disliked candidate, which further highlights the displeasure for the entire field.  In terms of enthusiasm, perhaps neither candidate currently has an inherent advantage.  Most of the voters are voting against someone instead of voting for someone.

Favorability Rating

Polls at this point in the cycle should be viewed with caution relative to expectations for November.  However, a candidate’s favorability rating is inherently important for a candidate to win the general election.   Mr. Obama’s current favorability rating, as measured by ABC News/Washington Post, was at 51%.  On Election Day in 2008, his favorability rating was at 64%.  In contrast, John McCain’s average favorability rating on Election Day was only 52%, 12 points lower than Obama’s

This is where the negative campaigning of the 2012 GOP primaries has drastically hurt its frontrunner.  Mitt Romney’s current favorability rating stands at 34%, while Rick Santorum’s favorability is at 36%.  There clearly isn’t much difference between these. 

However, where there is a very large difference (one that is only growing) is in each of the GOP contender’s unfavorability rating.  In this head to head match-up, Romney fares much worse with 37% viewing Santorum unfavorably vs. 47.5% for Mr. Romney

Again, favorability ratings are subject to change.  However, once a candidate has been negatively defined, as Romney has throughout this primary, it is much harder to be re-defined in a positive way.  Santorum, on the other hand, has really come from almost nowhere and is therefore still undefined to a large segment of Americans.  Because of this, he still has time to define himself before he lets his opponents do that for him. 


Speaking of defining a candidate, a candidate’s background and voting history is the easiest way for the opposition to define a contender.  The difference between Mr. Santorum’s and Mr. Romney’s backgrounds is stark; Mitt Romney at one time was pro-choice, favored stricter rules on gun control, believed climate change was at least partially a result of human activity, and supported an individual mandate.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, is ardently pro-life, has an A+ rating from the NRA, never believed in global climate change, and has never been in favor of the individual mandate, even when it was proposed by the Republicans in 1994. 

So, one would think that Mitt Romney would be more electable in the general election based on each of their voting history.  Not so fast:  Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on each of those issues in order to cater to the extreme right wing of his party, putting his current positions essentially in line with that of Mr. Santorum’s. 

Therefore, it’s very likely voters will punish Romney more for his positions because he has not been consistent.  That attack line worked quite well against John Kerry in 2004, and Kerry looks like Stonewall Jackson when compared to Romney. 
However, in the past week, Mr. Santorum has made a few very controversial comments regarding faith and government, higher education, and contraception.  In the general election, these won’t be forgotten and could doom his chances with moderates, college educated, and women. 

Focus of Campaign

If you talk to a Republican strategist, the 2012 elections will be as referendum on President Obama and his policies.  If you talk to a Democratic strategist, the general election will be a choice between President Obama and his GOP challenger.  The way the election is framed is crucial. 

It is beginning to become clear that the Obama re-election team likes the way Romney and Obama would be contrasted in the general election.  They are eager to portray Romney as out-of-touch and a part of the 1%.  Romney doesn’t do too much to combat this emerging storyline with recent comments about liking to fire people, $374,000 not being very much money, not caring about the poor, etc. 

Romney’s defenders will complain that most of these comments were taken out of context; it doesn’t matter.  A sound bite can kill a campaign, and there are plenty of videos of Mr. Romney that will remind voters that he can make $10,000 bets.

In contrast, President Obama is and has been framing himself as the defender of the middle class.  He is proposing evening the playing field by raising taxes on the rich.  With a poll showing that 55% of Americans believing income inequality is a big problem, it will certainly be a challenge for Mr. Romney to win over voters, especially when his own plan would increase the income gap.

Where Mr. Obama could run into trouble is if he were to be pitted against Rick Santorum.  Santorum, unlike Romney, seems authentically rooted in the blue-collar working class.  His policies favor manufacturing growth, and he does a much better job connecting with middle-class voters, probably because at one time he was one. 

President Obama would find it much more difficult to campaign on income inequality if he were to fight against Rick Santorum.  Sure, there are certainly other issues that the Obama campaign could talk about, but if Obama’s team is wanting to talk about issues other than the economy, they will be in a rough place come election day. 

Electoral College

This is where all of the other factors come into play.  If we take out all of the base and lean states, we can see a dozen or so swing states that could potentially be more favorable to Mr. Santorum than Mr. Romney.  For example, while Romney would likely do better in the northeast and west, Santorum would likely perform better in the so-called “rust belt”.  This region includes Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

Illinois and Michigan are in the win or likely win column for Obama and Indiana would be in the likely win column for the GOP, but the others would likely be more competitive if Santorum were at the top of the ticket. 

Romney, on the other hand, would be much more competitive against Obama in states such as Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona (which the Obama team plans to compete aggressively in due to the large Hispanic population), Nevada, and perhaps even Colorado. 

If Santorum were to win all of those swing states in the rust belt, and if Romney were to win all of the swing states on the coasts, Santorum would actually be in a better position than Romney, leaving Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida as true swing states (Santorum: 234, Romney: 214).  In the Romney scenario, President Obama would only need to pick up one the three remaining swing states, whereas Romney would need to sweep them. 

In Santorum’s case, President Obama would need to either win Florida or some combination of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.  Therefore, Santorum’s path to the Presidency is perhaps a bit wider and forces Obama to make a full sweep. 

In conclusion, it seems that, at least at this point, it is too soon to truly know who is more electable in November.  What is clear is that Romney can no longer factually claim that he is the most electable against President Obama, given his flip-flops on issues, low favorability ratings, background, Electoral College math, and overall lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy.  As it stands, the biggest winner so far of the GOP nomination has been President Obama.

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