It’s not that midwestern blue-collar whites won’t vote for a Republican. In 2010, they provided the margin for Scott Walker and tossed out at least six incumbent Democratic congressmen. But they aren’t naturally Republicans, and they certainly are not attracted to an economic message that they interpret as giving more power to management.
The Romney campaign seemed to assume that the religious-freedom issue would trump economics and bring midwestern Catholics to his cause. But that view relied on two fundamental misunderstandings of the Catholic vote. First, about half of all Catholics do not regularly attend Mass. For those voters, there was little to no appeal to this issue, especially since the act that created the religious-freedom issue — Obama’s contraception mandate — touches on the distance between the Church’s teachings and modern social life. Many non-practicing Catholics left the Church precisely because they believe the Church they love is out of touch with the times on non-core issues; they would be annoyed or repelled by the Romney campaign’s argument.
The second flawed assumption rests on the relation of the churchgoing Catholic to the bishops. Most Catholics today do not revere their parish priests as godly representatives, nor do they wait for the latest pronouncement from Rome. Even the faithful sitting in the pews regularly disregard the Church’s teachings on contraception and sex. To presume, as the Romney campaign often seemed to, that modern Catholic life was unchanged from the days of the Bells of St. Mary’s was a fundamental error and a grave political sin. This issue did help on the margins, but by no means did it produce the large swing among midwestern and northeastern Catholics the campaign thought it would.
I’ve written at length about the challenge Republicans face in attracting blue-collar non-Evangelicals and how they should respond. A message that emphasizes the role government can play in helping average people advance rather than one that emphasizes naked market forces automatically lifting all boats will resonate with both white and Hispanic non-Evangelical voters. But that is not the path Romney chose.
Death of a Salesman
I’m pretty sure both campaigns have come to the same conclusions based on the travel schedules in the last week. Romney has crisscrossed the country but has mainly stayed in the suburbs or major metro areas. In Ohio, he’s stayed in the Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati markets — Obama made a trip to the automobile-industry (and GOP-leaning) heartland in northwestern Ohio, but Romney steered clear. Ryan is handling the trips to blue-collar Youngstown and the rural areas. In Pennsylvania Romney is touching down in suburban Bucks County and Ryan held a rally in the GOP heartland of central Pennsylvania; neither will visit the state’s second-largest media market, heavily blue-collar Pittsburgh. You would never know Wisconsin is in play by Romney’s schedule — one trip to suburban Milwaukee and done. Romney political director Rich Beeson told Politico last week that Paul Ryan would bring home blue-collar Wisconsinites, and so it was Ryan who made the trek alone last week to Walker Democrat country in the western and southern parts of the state.
Romney did go to two blue-collar regions, eastern Iowa and southwestern Virginia. The latter move, however, is one of weakness, not strength. This area should be Romney country, and he will need margins of 30 percent or more from there to have a chance of carrying Virginia. But minor-party candidate Virgil Goode represented much of this area in Congress for over a decade, and with polls showing Virginia a toss-up, even a small vote for the conservative Goode could cost Romney the state.
President Obama’s schedule, in contrast, shows he thinks he has the lead in the Midwest because of blue-collar voters, and he plans to keep them. He has been in Ohio three separate days, including an entire day in the northwest, and Vice President Joe Biden has virtually lived there. When Biden isn’t in Ohio he’s mainly been in blue-collar areas in Iowa and Wisconsin, and former president Bill Clinton has also been deployed in those regions. President Obama has also traveled twice to Wisconsin and Iowa, and not just to Milwaukee and Des Moines.
The chart above starkly portrays Romney’s dilemma. It shows the Republican share of the white vote nationally and in the three key midwestern states over the last three elections. Romney needs the gap between the national and state-level white vote to shrink to have any hope of carrying these states, but instead it has remained stable or grown. That’s his blue-collar problem in a nutshell.
The Electoral College
Romney’s challenge is multiplied because of the changing Electoral College dynamics. As the Republican base has grown more southern and Evangelical, states that hold smaller shares of those voters have become harder to take. Nationally Romney needs a shift of about 3.7 percentage points from 2008 to win narrowly, but he needs a shift of 4.8 percentage points to win enough states to win the Electoral College. That means he has to win the national popular vote by between 1 and 2 percent. And that assumes that Ohio sticks to its multi-decade pattern of slightly tilting toward the Republicans. If current state polls are correct, Ohio is neutral at best and likely now leans very slightly to the Democrats.
If I am right and Obama wins by about a point and change, Romney will definitely win all the McCain states plus Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and the single vote from Nebraska’s second congressional district. Colorado and Virginia will be extremely close, but given that both states have shown a four-election trend away from Republicans such that Colorado now leans slightly Democratic and Virginia is neutral, I believe both will narrowly go for the president.