Even as Mitt Romney steadily crawls his way toward his party’s presidential nomination, the Republican grassroots continues to choose one of his rivals in primary after primary.
Yet, Mr. Romney’s inability to win over the GOP’s evangelical and Southern base may be a minor inconvenience compared to his failure to connect with a more critical constituency: white working-class voters in swing states.
They will be the key to victory for any Republican nominee against President Barack Obama in the fall.
It hardly matters that evangelical voters in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia – states that Mr. Romney lost on Super Tuesday – did not vote for him this week. The odds that any Republican could lose those states to Mr. Obama are next to zero.
However, Mr. Romney’s skin-of-his-teeth victories in GOP primaries in Ohio on Tuesday, and on Feb. 28 in Michigan, underscore his difficulty rallying a cohort Republican presidential candidates have relied on for decades to win the White House.
Four swing Rust Belt states – Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – will be among the most hotly contested in November. And since U.S. presidents are chosen by an electoral college, Mr. Romney almost certainly needs to win white working-class voters in the Rust Belt four if he is to get his hands on their crucial 64 electoral votes.
“That is why Romney is in big trouble,” said John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “He did not do as well as he should have in the Ohio and Michigan primaries.”
Luckily for him, Mr. Romney is not the only presidential candidate who has had trouble earning the confidence of this group. Mr. Obama has also struggled with them.
Indeed, during his marathon battle with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Mr. Obama badly lost the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries largely due to the antipathy toward him of white working class voters in those states.
While there are several ways to define the white working class, it has historically been comprised of Caucasians without a college education. Increasingly, experts use income data to distinguish this group of voters from others.
Among Ohio Republican primary voters without a college degree, Rick Santorum beat Mr. Romney by five percentage points on Tuesday. Among those earning between $50,000 and $100,000, a range that covers thousands of factory workers in those states, Mr. Romney lost to Mr. Santorum by 11 percentage points, according to exit polls.
In the 2008 general election against John McCain, Mr. Obama could afford to split the white working class vote, since he could rely on nearly unanimous support among African-Americans and about two-thirds support among Hispanics, the most rapidly expanding group of voters. He will, by all accounts, have a similar advantage this fall.
Mr. Romney, if he is the nominee, would have no such luxury. Since 1964, white working class voters have been the linchpins in every Republican victory.
An ex-private equity chieftain with a net worth of $200-million (U.S.) starts out with certain handicaps in seducing these voters. But Mr. Romney’s awkward allusions to his wealth and fierce opposition to the government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler have only made his climb among the white working class steeper.
Mr. Romney is keenly aware that this is a problem. After barely winning Michigan, he rolled out a new, simpler campaign slogan – More Jobs. Less Debt. Smaller Government – hoping it would appeal to conservative blue-collar workers.
Mr. Obama’s campaign operatives initially feared a Romney candidacy because they thought his successful business career would be a powerful draw among voters as public finances dominated the national conversation during last summer’s debt-ceiling crisis.
Increasingly, however, they see Mr. Romney’s business past as his Achilles heel among white working-class voters who have borne the brunt of a declining manufacturing base.
It is no coincidence that Mr. Obama has now taken to touting the auto bailouts at nearly every turn, even though they remain largely unpopular nationally.
“It wasn’t because of anything the government did. It wasn’t just because of anything management did. It was because I believed in you,” Mr. Obama said in a speech last week before members of the United Auto Workers. “I placed my bet on the American worker. And I’ll make that bet any day of the week.”
As the debt-ceiling talk faded, the rise of the Occupy movement shifted the American conversation from public finances to income inequality. Mr. Obama took up the mantle and now seems prepared to stake his re-election on it.
“That resonates with white working-class people because of what’s happened with them over the last 30 years,” Prof. Russo said. “And Romney is the wrong candidate to [counter]this message given his own economic status and the way he’s handled it during the campaign.”
The general election is still eight months off and the national conversation could change again several times before then. But unless Mr. Romney figures out how to sell himself to white Rust Belt factory workers, and others like them, the solidly Republican South he is losing in the primaries may be all he can count on winning in November.