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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Myth of Romney’s Progress Among Conservatives

Daren Jonescu

Reports of Mitt Romney's growing appeal among conservative voters remain unsupported by the evidence.

Since the Illinois primary, supporters of Mitt Romney have been liberally peppering their case with claims that their man has now shown an ability to win over conservative Republicans. This claim is based almost entirely on exit polling from Illinois. A careful look at the Illinois exit poll, however, as well as at the general trends in the primaries before and since Illinois, paints a different picture.

Each time Romney wins a blue state or a territory that cannot vote in the general election, his supporters and surrogates leap in with variations on "That seals it!" But when, as repeatedly happens, Romney subsequently suffers a blowout in another, more conservative state, they try to belittle that result with a dismissive, "Well, of course Santorum won Louisiana—big deal." Likewise, a recent endorsement from a popular but unproven conservative, Marco Rubio, is trumpeted through the mainstream conservative media with a chorus of hallelujahs. Meanwhile, when an unassailable conservative giant like Thomas Sowell questions the frontrunner's principles, and scoffs at the "inevitability" argument, the only sound issuing from those same media quarters is that of brooms being swept quickly in the direction of raised rugs.

The problem is that Romney's dismissal of the more conservative states, which made sense as long as the GOP Establishment's strategy was to diminish and marginalize the Tea Party, has become troublesome as that Establishment (i.e. the Romney campaign) has finally realized that the constitutional conservative bloc is bigger and more recalcitrant than expected. Since Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, the Romney camp has swallowed a good dose of realism, and conceded that they cannot simply skim blissfully to victory along on the surface of the GOP, while steadfastly ignoring or belittling the deep conservative undercurrents within the party.

Team Romney's difficulty, however, is a complete tone-deafness to the real issues that are motivating constitutional conservatives. Romney, who clearly has neither enthusiasm for, nor intellectual curiosity about, basic liberty issues, has never even learned to fake it for the audience. That is why he struggles to win red states, and why the most conservative states—those with the most ardent Tea Party sympathies—are breaking hard for anyone who seems like a viable alternative to Romney. (For example, just a few days after Romney's latest "death blow" in Illinois, Santorum more than merely defeated him in Louisiana; he crushed him, doubling Romney's margin of victory from Illinois.)

The extent of Romney's red state problems is obscured and mitigated by the superfluous number of "anyones" remaining in the process. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Romney campaign has been trying, however ineffectually, to persuade conservatives that Romney is one of their own—or even that he is more conservative than his rivals. They have been seeking a breakthrough, a moment they could point to as evidence that Romney really can draw a majority of conservatives away from the other men, and particularly from Santorum. They believe, or at least wish to claim, that Illinois was that breakthrough.

Was it? First of all, let us state the obvious: if there is one state in the Union whose Republican voters will not, unfortunately, be in a position to affect the outcome of the presidential election, it is Illinois. Thus, that state's enthusiasm for Romney, like Guam's or Puerto Rico's, while relevant in the hunt for delegates, is hardly a great cause for hope for November. But what of the claim, popping up all over the place since the night of March 20th, that conservatives in that state embraced Romney, thus showing the governor's growth potential with the GOP base?

The claim is based on exit polling data. I must state up front that I have been a vociferous and unwavering opponent of the methods and uses of political polling throughout this campaign season. In my view, even in the case of the "best" polls, while they may provide "accurate" data, it is generally impossible to define exactly what they are accurate about. The results invariably and necessarily admit of various interpretations. Having made this personal disclaimer, however, let's go ahead and examine the Illinois exit poll "at face value," or at least as though it matters.

According the poll, among the 29% of respondents who identified themselves as "Very Conservative," the results were Santorum (48%), Romney (37%), Gingrich (9%), and Paul (5%). Among the "Somewhat Conservative," who comprised 34% of respondents, the results were Romney (55%), Santorum (31%), Gingrich (8%), and Paul (5%). Overall, therefore, among the 64% who identified themselves as "conservatives" of either the "very" or "somewhat" variety, Romney was indeed the winner, at 47%, followed by Santorum (39%), Gingrich (9%), and Paul (5%).

It is this last category, the aggregated "conservative" respondents, that Romney supporters are pointing to when they argue that Mitt is now showing that he can "win conservatives." Question: In this age of Obama, ObamaCare, out-of-control regulatory agencies, inconceivable national debt, global climate fraud, and an entitlement society that has bankrupted America both fiscally and morally, what does it mean to identify oneself as "Somewhat Conservative"? Polls of this sort cannot answer this question, because they do not ask the kind of questions that might reveal the answer.

Furthermore, doesn't "somewhat conservative" necessarily imply "somewhat unconservative"? Here we run up against the problem with polls about political self-identification. I have explained the problem in detail before, but one key point bears noting in this context: Without clear "litmus test" markers to indicate their meanings, words like "conservative," "moderate," and "liberal" admit of as many definitions as there are interpreters, and are inevitably relative. Can a conservative be pro-choice? Can he believe it is the federal government's role to "spread democracy"? Can he advocate an individual mandate, a national education policy, or a plan to "save" Social Security? On each of these questions, some will say "yes," and others will say "no." And on each of these questions, we can identify particular men on either side of the issue who are generally regarded as "conservatives."

Thus, the terminology used in such polling is nebulous to begin with. How, then, is one to interpret a bizarrely nuanced category such as "Somewhat Conservative"? Perhaps, like Thomas Aquinas on God, we must take refuge in "negative theology," and seek to define these self-identifiers by what they certainly are not.

One who would, in today's moral and political climate, self-identify as "somewhat conservative," is highly unlikely to have strong Tea Party sympathies. This person is reticent about appearing "extreme" in political matters. He is therefore unwilling to declare himself "very" anything. As one who sees himself as only "somewhat" conservative, furthermore, he presumably considers himself "somewhat" liberal—though his liberal tendencies are less pronounced than his conservative ones, at least in his own estimation. Leaving room for a tiny minority of libertarians, who might self-identify as "somewhat conservative" in order to avoid lumping themselves together with "social conservatives," it seems reasonable to posit that most "somewhat conservative" Americans are not obsessive—or perhaps even all that concerned—about natural rights, overturning 80 years of socialist encroachment upon God-given liberty, and revitalizing the moral and political framework of the constitutional republic envisioned by the Founders. In general, they do not think constitutional questions are the heart of the 2012 election.

Whom have we just described? Hint: This 34% of Illinois primary voters is the only category in which he won an outright majority in the exit poll.

We must not neglect the manner in which the poll itself, like most polls, is framed to manufacture a particular result. Why does "Somewhat Conservative" warrant a category of its own, distinct from "Moderate"? Keeping in mind what we have suggested about those who would self-identify as merely "somewhat" conservative, consider this: Does this poll not strongly discourage any moderate Republican from identifying himself as such? What Republican these days would wish to identify himself as less than even "somewhat" conservative?

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that with the "Somewhat Conservative" category, this poll in effect offers GOP moderates a place to hide from their conservative critics.

Incidentally, in the Illinois primary, the "Moderate or Liberal" categories together comprised the largest faction of poll-respondents, at 36%. This oddity is explained by the fact that Independents and Democrats accounted for 32% of respondents. And while the Romney people want you to know that their candidate beat Santorum among the so-called "conservatives" in this poll, they are not making a lot of noise about the fact that his advantage among the moderate to liberal group was much bigger than his advantage in the aggregated "Conservative" category. (Among aggregated "Conservatives," Romney won 47-39; among aggregated "Moderates and Liberals," the margin was 48-27.)

This latter result—Romney's huge advantage among self-identified moderates to liberals—is consistent with exit poll results from every other state. Even in Michigan, where the Romney people tried to create a controversy over the Santorum campaign's courting of Democrats, the combined moderate and liberal categories favored Romney, 39-33. Furthermore, in Michigan, as in virtually every other state Romney has won, he was unable to win self-identified "Very Conservative" voters. Santorum won that category 50-36.

Another interesting poll question which the Romney people conveniently overlook, concerns voters with a negative opinion of the Tea Party movement. In Illinois, as almost everywhere, those who claim to "oppose" the Tea Party voted overwhelmingly for Romney.

So what, in fact, does the Illinois exit poll tell us? First of all, Illinois Republican primary voters in general skew a little to the left of those in, say, Louisiana. (For example, in both states, the percentage who described themselves as strongly supportive of the Tea Party was almost identical to the percentage of "Very Conservatives"; about 30% in Illinois, but nearly 50% in Louisiana.) And yet even in Illinois, those willing to identify themselves as very conservative—conservative without reservation—chose Santorum by double digits. Romney's much-ballyhooed victory among conservatives was achieved only by including those voters—the single biggest self-identified category in Illinois—who are uncomfortable defining themselves as conservatives pure and simple, but who are squeamish about being labelled "moderates."

Celebrity conservative endorsements notwithstanding, Romney has thus far shown an inability to win over substantial numbers of genuine conservatives. These voters continue to seek an alternative to the GOP Establishment's choice. They have settled on Santorum. They will likely stay there until Santorum quits, or hell freezes over.

The reason is simple, but remains obscure to Romney's supporters: This election is not primarily about fiscal responsibility and a steady hand (which Romney may well be able to provide). Those skills are useful in some contexts, but this is not a moment for mere "skills." This is the moment for virtue—by which I mean political virtue, i.e. clear principles, a willingness to make this election a battle over whether Americans wish to preserve their constitutional heritage, and whether they still believe in individual rights. "Liberty" and "socialism" are the keywords of this campaign. Healthcare is the policy issue at the heart of it. Romney has no interest in the ideological fight, and no leg to stand on in the healthcare debate.

The liberal media, along with the hate-peddlers on the American Left, will ensure that this election will become a referendum on Barack Obama the man, rather than on President Obama. At some point in this campaign, George Stephanopoulos is going to challenge the Republican nominee with this question: "Are you suggesting that Barack Obama doesn't love this country?" If the Republican answers the way John McCain would answer, the way almost all of Romney's endorsers would answer, the election is lost.

A true conservative would answer differently. A true conservative would be campaigning on the issues of greatest importance to constitutionalists. Mitt Romney is not doing that. That's why he is not winning with conservatives. Romney will soon likely return to Plan A: Ignore conservatives and assume that if he is the last man standing, they will vote for him against Obama. And they will. Until then, they will continue to ask why they should be the ones to accept the compromise of "somewhat" conservatism yet again.

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