Santorum’s Demographic Edge

I do not pretend to know the intricate details of the Republican primary presidential race – reading about caucuses and the insane amounts of money spent on advertising leave me yearning for the simplicities of New Zealand’s intimate electoral system where every person gets two votes. (We see the slippery slope in action here – just over one hundred years ago the cry was for “One man, one vote” – would the cry have been answered if those granting it had known that the allotment would have been doubled in the future??)

Anyway, back to the story in hand – the interesting three-way split in the Iowa primary earlier this week.  Rick Santorum, the Catholic candidate known best for his socially conservative views, rocketed from nowhere to almost winning the primary from Mitt Romney.  The National Journal recently ran an article by Ronald Brownstein that argued that Santorum’s chances of winning the Republican nomination to come up against Obama are slight, but that there are some positives for him, primarily demography: “…with a working-class style and message, Santorum could have one weapon: the changing demography of the Republican electorate.”

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There is a growing blue collar vote in the Republican constituency, as Brownstein argues:

The changing nature of the GOP primary electorate reflects the overall shift in each party’s coalition over the past generation… In the first decades after World War II, every Democratic presidential nominee ran much more strongly among white voters without a college-education than whites with at least a four- year degree. But, particularly as non-economic issues from racial integration to abortion grew more important, the parties have switched positions. In each presidential election since 2000, the Democratic nominee has run better among college-educated whites than non-college whites; meanwhile working-class white families have become the cornerstone of the Republican electoral coalition.

While in some coastal states – New Hampshire, New Jersey, Hampshire, Connecticut – college educated voters comprise a majority of the Republican electorate; this is certainly not the case in most Southern and Midwestern states. How does this help Santorum?  Well, as the share of Republican voters who are “blue collar” grows, this apparently benefits Santorum rather than the frontrunner – Romney.  Brownstein again:

Many white-collar Republicans relate easily to Romney’s aura of brisk executive competence; he’s a natural fit for voters who want a president to manage the economy. But he’s not quite as natural a choice for the blue-collar component of the GOP electorate, which tends to be more populist -both culturally and economically-and looking for someone less to manage Washington than to upend it.

If Santorum is to continue the race to the Republican nomination, then his ability to position himself as a working-class alternative to Romney may be crucial.  While Santorum is a lawyer and his father was a clinical psychologist, his grandfather was a coal miner and Santorum himself comes from the “working-class blue-collar town of Butler, Pennsylvania.”  Furthermore, his economic conservatism – he rails against the loss of American industries and decline in upward mobility – is reflected in policies such as zero-ing out taxes on profits repatriated from abroad for manufacturers who invest in plant and equipment which may help to position himself as regular guy who gets the working class and is therefore in a good position to capture this growing constituency in the Grand Old Party. His biggest challenge may be to try and overcome the branding as a social conservative only, a hard thing to do when that is all that seems to draw horrified and bemused media attention.


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