Can A Social Conservative Win The Swing States In 2016?

Conventional wisdom holds that in order for a Republican presidential candidate to do well in the swing states, he/she must be soft on social issues. But is this true? In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is the case.

For example, the Guttmacher Institute has published a report on state abortion policies in 2013. As Michael New notes in the NRO:

Guttmacher places each state into one of three categories based on the number of pro-life laws on the books. Unsurprisingly, a majority of “red” states are deemed “hostile” to abortion rights while many “blue” states fall in the “supportive” category. What is interesting, however, is the success of pro-life laws in many “purple” or swing states. Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were all states that Barack Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012. They are also states Republicans hope to win in 2016. Guttmacher places each of these four states in the “hostile” category.

Whenever Republican presidential candidates fare poorly, advice to the Republican party becomes a cottage industry among media pundits and political professionals alike. Many media analysts reflexively encourage Republicans to focus more on economic issues and abandon conservative positions on social issues. However, this recent Guttmacher study shows that pro-life candidates and pro-life policies have been successful in many of the swing states that Republicans need to win in 2016. Republican political consultants and candidates would do well to take notice.

This is essentially what I found when analyzing the overall primary performances of the GOP candidates in 2012. When it came to the battleground states (I considered these to be Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia), Rick Santorum was actually not as far behind Mitt Romney as one might think. As of March 19, 2012,

Romney won 5 of these states, Santorum 2, and Gingrich none. The delegate count for these states closely follows the wins, with Romney getting 167 delegates, Santorum 44, and Gingrich 14. However, 50 of Romney’s delegates came from Florida, which is one of the few big states thus far which is winner-take-all; 43 of Romney’s delegates came from Virginia, which is winner-take-all by district, and which did not have either Gingrich or Santorum on the ballot; and Santorum basically tied Romney in Ohio, but was eighteen delegates short in his delegate slate, allowing Romney to win Ohio by 35 to 21. When all these factors are taken into account, Romney has still done much better in delegates in the battleground states than Santorum has, but the margin is not nearly as great as it might seem at first glance. While Santorum does not have the Blue State appeal of Romney, he is not as far behind in Purple State appeal as one might imagine.

To put this in context, at the time this was written, a Rassmussen poll showed that in a head-to-head match-up, Santorum outperformed both Romney and Obama in many of these states:

President Obama now trails former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum by four points in a hypothetical 2012 matchup in combined polling of key swing states Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia…
Santorum leads the president 48% to 44% in the so-called Core Four states. Five percent (5%) prefer some other candidate in this matchup, and two percent (2%) are undecided. This marks a shift from last week, when the president was slightly ahead of Santorum …
Obama remains ahead of Romney 46% to 42%, showing no change from last week. Six percent (6%) prefer some other candidate in this matchup, and six percent (6%) are undecided.

Overall, when we look at the GOP candidates in 2012, Ron Paul’s support came mostly from Democrats that were able to vote in open primaries or caucuses, and Newt Gingrich only found support in Red States. At the same time, Romney found some support everywhere. However, poll after poll showed that his support came mostly because people thought that he was the only electable candidate and/or because people thought he was inevitable, and Romney did best by far in Blue States that there was no way the GOP would ever win. Santorum was actually the strongest candidate with both Red State and swing state appeal. This was backed up by both primary results and by polls of swing states during the primaries.

When we dig into the internals of the polls, Santorum’s support in swing states was from his stands on social issues. This is because swing states are more pro-life than most people suppose, and because he was the only viable pro-life candidate with any appeal (Gingrich was too toxic). On the other hand, throughout both the 2012 primaries and general election campaigns, there was no single issue that Romney could call his own, apart from his claim of being a good manager. This was the only metric that he found consistent support for in the polls when he was matched up against other candidates. In short, Santorum gave people in swing states some reason to support him (his pro-life position), while Romney did not.

Romney did a great job of gaming the primaries, but a very poor job of gaining broad support, and this came back to bite him in the 2012 election, where voters in Red States supported Romney because they had no other choice, and everyone else pretty much either voted for Obama or stayed home.

I am not saying that Santorum could have won in 2012 or that he was a great candidate. I am saying that he could not have done worse than Romney, especially if the GOP establishment and conservative pundits had been willing to stand behind him. In fact, despite a depressed voter turn-out, Romney was not able to pick up a single battleground state in 2012. (I had predicted that the GOP would win Indiana and North Carolina, no matter who the candidate was, so I did not consider them battlegrounds. However, please note that Romney came within a whisker of losing North Carolina.) Effectively, Romney was the generic name of the ballot in 2012. Anyone could have done as well or better than he did. And polls suggest that Santorum may have been able to flip Ohio and Virginia into the red column, because of his pro-life stance. Because he stood for something.

In summary, while this goes against conventional wisdom, all the data I have seen suggests that instead of running candidates weak on social issues, the GOP is better off running candidates that are strong on social issues, but who also bring something else to the table (i.e., charisma, a vision for our country, an ability to work with others). Santorum brought only part of the package to the table in 2012, which is why he could not win the primaries. A better candidate could win the whole thing in 2016, provided that the GOP stops knifing pro-life candidates in the back.

Of course, this might be too much to ask for.

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