“Romney has an Appalachia problem” and other Super Tuesday misconceptions

Super Tuesday has come and gone. Today the news pundits are making all sorts of analysis and predictions about what the results mean for the Romney campaign and eventually the November general election. To help keep all the punditry and speculation in proper perspective, here are a few important things to remember:

First, sixty years American voting behavior has shown that American voters are very predictable when it comes to presidential elections. Voters vote for their party’s candidate about 90% of the time. Today all the talk is about whether or not Romney can win the support of those who voted for Santorum/Gingrich/Paul yesterday. For example, a CNN columnist observed Santorum’s victories in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and the near-victory in Ohio and concluded that “Romney has an Appalachia problem,” suggesting that come November, this might hurt his chances in the general election.

The bottom line question is whether or not those Santorum/Gingrich/Paul voters will, come November, end up holding their noses and voting for Romney OR deciding that they cannot in good conscience support Romney and thus cast their ballot for Obama. Which of those two scenarios is more likely? Remember, voters vote for their party’s candidate about 90% of the time. Very few of these voters are going to jump ship and vote Democrat simply because their preferred Republican lost the primary.

Also, remember the 2008 primary election. Obama lost California, New York, Massachussets, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Indiana, and Michigan, all states that he eventually won in the general election. There’s a similar pattern on the GOP side. The point is that lack of enthusiastic support in a state partisan primary does not automatically suggest weakness in a general election, even in swing states.

Second, what about the “enthusiasm gap”? After all, GOP primary turnout is lower this year than in 2008. Even though most Santorum/Gingrich/Paul GOP voters won’t vote for Obama this November, is it possible that they’ll simply sit this one out if Romney wins? Probably not. Sixty years of American voting behavior has also shown that voting is more a habit than anything else, and those higher on the socioeconomic scale are more likely to vote than those on the lower end of the scale. Primary voters are the consistent voters. If they are willing to make the effort to show up for a primary they’ll very likely make the effort to show up for the general election. And almost all of them will vote Republican, even if Romney’s the nominee.
 
It’s those who usually vote in the general but didn’t show up in the primary that will possibly make or break the turn-out effort for the GOP. The problem is, they didn’t vote yesterday, so we don’t have any exit poll data to let us know who their preferred candidate is. My guess (based solely on an educated hunch) is that they’re more likely to be Romney supporters. Strong ideologues are more likely to vote in primaries and they’re tending to vote for the more conservative candidates. Those who didn’t show up to vote tend to be more moderate. So if anything, it’s possible that these guys (general election but not primary voters) will be more likely to turn out if Romney is the eventual candidate.
 
Third, there’s a lot of talk about how the eventual GOP nominee will be weakened by this drawn-out primary campaign and therefore will be at a disadvantage in the November election, especially among Independent voters. First, about the candidate being “weakened”: most voters have very short political memories. By the time November comes around, they’re not going to remember most of the details of the fall campaign, much less the ins-and-outs of the spring primaries. My strong hunch is that most GOP voters are not going to say to themselves: “I was thinking about voting for Romney but it took him a couple of months to eventually beat Santorum… so maybe I’ll sit this one out.” That’s not how it’s going to go. 90% of them are going to say: “Romney > Obama” and vote accordingly.
 
Also, most “Independent” voters don’t really care how long or nasty the primary campaign is. Two-thirds of them, specifically, the Independent “leaners”, are going to vote for their preferred party’s candidate by a margin of 80%-90%. The other one-third are fairly disengaged and many of them probably won’t vote anyways. Those that do will very likely not ultimately determine the outcome of this year’s election. 
 
So there you go. Enjoy the post-Super Tuesday punditry, but don’t forget about the “fundamentals” of American political behavior. There’s a lot less to yesterday’s results than we might be tempted to think. Bottom line: Romney won lots of delegates yesterday. He’ll likely end up winning the nomination. Ultimately, most Republicans will still vote for him even if they didn’t support him yesterday.
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