A tale of two bases: the 2012 Republican primaries in perspective

The Republican primary season is all but over. Romney is on his way to being the nominee and will hawk his wares against Obama in the general elections in November. In the end, Republicans went with the frontrunner; they always do. Still, the Republican primary had its fairy tale moments and carnivalesque personalities.

In my view, there are two key interrelated aspects of the primaries that deserve attention: (1) Romney’s relative weakness and (2) the continued supply of conservative pretenders. Indeed, we should not forget that Bachman, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum all led Romney at varying points in time (see graph at RCP).

The natural question, then, is: Why did Romney have such a tough time resonating with the broader Republican base?

The explanations vary, including lack of charisma; no common touch; and a proclivity to flip-flop. Still others argue that he is too liberal for a largely conservative Republican base, with his policies in Massachusetts and his Mormonism as proof points of a conservative heretic. All of these explanations have their merit, but I believe they miss the point.

Instead, I would argue that the problem doesn’t lie with Romney per se but with the bifurcated Republican base—one which is more conservative versus the other which is more moderate.

This is perhaps best captured in the graphical display below. I plot the profile of voters along two dimensions: (1) social and (2) economic. Here I use support for gay marriage as a proxy for the social dimension and support for cutting spending over raising taxes to reduce the budget deficit as a proxy for the economic dimension.


So what do we find?

For the most part, things fall where we would expect them. Obama voters are more liberal, democratic, and less white. Conversely, Republican voters are more conservative and more white. However, key here is that Romney’s primary supporters are markedly less conservative and more moderate than the strongly conservative Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum voters. Indeed, we find two distinct voting clusters within the Republican base—one more conservative and the other more moderate.

So what are some possible implications of this analysis?

First, the relative instability of voter preferences during the primaries, in my view, was largely a function of a polarized Republican base. In partical terms, the moderate Romney had a difficult time appealing to a more conservative base, leaving room for challengers.

Second, such a divided base spells potential problems in the general elections. Romney will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Indeed, general elections are typically about moving to the middle and appealing to the average, or median, voter. However, it is also about motivating one’s base of support. Herein lies Romney’s central challenge: how does he appeal to the middle when an important portion of his base is much more conservative? It will be interesting to watch Romney’s political calculus on this point unfold over the course of the electoral cycle. How will he bridge this gap? Romney success (or failure) will have much to do with this interesting tale of two cities, or rather ‘two bases’.