Can Romney Rally His Suburban Base?

BY Dante Chinni  February 15, 2012 at 5:14 PM EST

Mitt Romney; photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images Mitt Romney campaigns in Reno, Nev., in early February. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

It may be that Mitt Romney’s problem, his falling numbers since last week in state and national polls, is his base.

Nine states into the Republican presidential nominating contests, a very clear pattern emerges in Patchwork Nation’s demographic and geographic breakdown of counties. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is relying heavily on wealthy suburban counties — counties Patchwork Nation calls the Monied ‘Burbs — to win states.

The Republican presidential nominating calendar has moved through 43 Monied ‘Burb counties so far, and Romney has won 21 of them. That’s even though former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has won far more counties overall thanks to his Feb. 7 gains.

That’s not a surprise to Patchwork Nation. We have noted since fall that Romney’s base was the ‘Burbs. It has been his biggest donation support base.

Winning in the ‘Burbs can be a very good thing for a politician. Those counties hold large numbers of swing voters that decide elections — or at least decide general elections. Primaries are different. And that distinction may help explain why Romney suddenly finds himself struggling.

All About the ‘Burbs

About 70 million people live in the 286 wealthy counties we call the Monied ‘Burbs. They are critical come election time because the people that live there are generally less tethered to a political party than in other places. Their voters tend to vote more along economic lines. A strong economy is very good for an incumbent in the ‘Burbs, while a bad economy is good for a challenger.

It made sense going into this year’s elections that the ‘Burbs would be good territory for Romney. He has a strong economic and business background from his time with Bain Capital. Among the other GOP contenders, Romney is most like the voters in the ‘Burbs. He is generally more moderate on social issues than his challengers.

Romney used this appeal in the ‘Burbs as a big part of his appeal to the GOP. It remains central to his electability argument. The GOP needs the moderate swing-voting ‘Burbs to win, and Romney is the candidate best suited to that task.

But all of that hinges on one factor: winning the nomination. And that’s where the ‘Burbs may not be as helpful.

The things that make the ‘Burbs critical to November — the swing voters, the decreased emphasis on social issues — make them much less crucial in the primaries and caucuses. There are still more people in the ‘Burbs than in other counties, and they can still matter a great deal in a party primary. However, because voters are less focused on ideology, they may also be less likely to turn out.

It takes a lot to fire up some of these wealthy suburban places, and it looks as though that’s starting to become a challenge for Romney. Consider Minnesota. In 2008 Romney won the Twin Cities’ Monied ‘Burbs counties of Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Isanti, Washington and Wright (all in beige on the map below). Turnout was down in each of those counties in 2012 by some 8,600 overall, and Romney lost all of them.

Going Negative and Moving Rightward

As the primary campaign drags on, Romney faces two challenges that could hurt him further in the ‘Burbs.

First, the Romney campaign and its super PAC allies have a lot of money, but thus far they’ve been relying heavily on negative advertisements. In Florida, reportedly 92 percent of the advertising spending on behalf of the Romney campaign was on negative spots. And analysts believe those ads turn off swing voters like those that live in the Monied ‘Burbs.

Second, if Romney has to fight hard to secure the nomination — and more conservative voters — by saying things and taking stances that will win conservatives over, those positions could hurt Romney if he does win the nomination. Remember those wealthy suburban voters are not very keen on social and cultural issues.

And the truth is, Romney does not have a lot of room to maneuver. His problem is not that he is running a general election campaign in primary season; it’s that he appears to be a much better general election candidate than primary candidate.

There are still a lot of primary contests before the Republican nominee is decided, but the key challenge for Romney in the weeks ahead will be to get out the vote in those wealthy suburban areas — and win them big. If he cannot get those voters — his base — out for him, he may face a very tough road ahead.