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Class division within the Republican party

- April 11, 2012

Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson write about Romney’s combination of corporate support and difficulty connecting with evangelical Christian voters. They write:

In the general election, moreover, Romney will have to reach well beyond his base, to independents and those less predisposed toward all things Republican. By contrast with past GOP nominees Romney’s appeal looks modest, limited largely to affluent voters. One may doubt that his endorsement of the Ryan budget will do much to broaden that appeal, either. To win in November, he is likely to need a stupefying large amount of money and a really good Etch-a-Sketch.

I think they have a point. On the other hand, Romney actually does have a stupefying large amount of money and a pretty good Etch-a-Sketch, too, in the form of a press that’s pretty thrilled that he’s not Gingrich or Santorum.

The main reason I’m writing about this is that Burnham and Ferguson’s reasoning makes sense to me, but it contradicts what I usually say about political positioning and elections. I’ve been heavily influenced by Steven Rosenstone’s 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections, where he writes that there’s a small electoral benefit to being ideologically moderate, maybe it’s worth 1 or 2 percentage points of the vote. In the context of the 2012 Republican Party, Mitt Romney is a moderate.

Class-based voting is a big theme in the media (recall Barack “aloof” Obama vs. Hillary “regular guy” Clinton, which always seemed pretty funny to me, given that she had formerly been labeled Hillary “stuck up” Clinton; before that we had regular guy George W. Bush, etc.), but it’s always seemed to me to miss the point. After all, regular-guy George W. Bush did about as well with upper-income voters as his Republican predecessors. But maybe something new is going on here. Compared to McCain vs. Obama, the contest of Romney vs. Obama looks more like a traditional Republican vs. Democrat class war. I think the usual economic voting story still holds (e.g., Mondale and Dole lost because of the booming economies, not because they were too liberal or too conservative, respectively), but maybe Burnham and Ferguson are right that Romney’s moderation won’t do him much good given his positions on economic issues.