Mitt Romney greets volunteers; photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
The 2012 primary contests have not yet begun, but one trend has emerged in the early stages of the campaign. In national polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sits firmly in the 25 percent support range.
Romney’s struggles are not in character with the traditional path for Republican candidates. Usually, the candidate who has run before and not run afoul with the party is treated as the heir apparent. The big campaign bank account that comes with that position — something Romney also has — doesn’t hurt either.
So why is Romney having a hard time locking down front-runner status? Some argue it is his Mormon faith, an issue Patchwork Nation has examined. Some point to the role he played in the Massachusetts health care plan.
But when Patchwork Nation looks back to the last presidential campaign, we’re not sure Romney’s struggles within the GOP base are such a surprise. It was evident fairly early in 2008 that Romney had problems with key parts of the GOP base — and key Republican-voting county types in Patchwork Nation.
Two key states that held votes before the former Massachusetts governor dropped out in the 2008 campaign tell the tale.
The caucuses in Hawkeye State kicked off the 2008 race as it always does. When you look at the results, you see the problems that may continue to haunt Romney. The win for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was something of a surprise, but look at where he won — and Romney didn’t — and you’ll notice a pattern.
There are nine rural, agricultural Tractor Country counties in Iowa and Huckabee won them all. Romney did better in the aging Emptying Nest counties and the Monied Burb counties. You can see the county breakdown of Iowa on the map below.
Of course, Huckabee did better everywhere in the state, but his ability to run the table in those Tractor Country counties in 2008 was noteworthy. Those counties are among the most reliably Republican places in the country. And Romney’s inability to win any of them speaks to larger issues he has with solid GOP voting areas. The Burbs and Emptying Nests were more politically divided in 2008.
And in 2011? Sioux Center, a Tractor Country community in the northwest corner of Iowa, has seen its share of 2012 politicking and some opinions are forming. “About 1 in 4 people [here] say they don’t want a Mormon,” Donald King, a professor at Dordt College, writes in an email. “We had a big turnout for [Michele] Bachmann … she is always really prepped for her audience and knows exactly which buttons to push (abortion and gay marriage).”
Those are the kinds of issues that, so far anyway, Romney has steered clear of and could mean trouble for him in these counties again in 2012.
Romney had similar problems with a different kind of county in 2008 in Missouri: socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters. The Show-Me State has 54 of those counties and Romney did not win a single one of them in the 2008 primary. Again, they mostly went to Huckabee.
The map below shows how those counties, in the yellow, are scattered across Missouri.
There are other factors to consider, of course. Huckabee was the former governor of neighboring Arkansas so the Missouri voters knew him and were somewhat comfortable with him. But not all those evangelical counties went to Huckabee. Sen. John McCain won seven Evangelical Epicenter counties.
In other words, it looks like those counties in Missouri were not just a Huckabee strength, they were also a Romney weakness.
It’s hard to get a clear reading on how big an uphill fight Romney might face in 2012. In Nixa, Mo., an Evangelical Epicenter that Patchwork Nation has been visiting since 2008, the conversation about Romney and his faith is mixed, says John Schmalzbauer, a religious studies professor at Missouri State University in nearby Springfield.
“Some Ozarks evangelicals continue to see Mormonism as outside the boundaries of Christian faith,” he writes in an email. “It is hard to get a fix on how widespread this perception is. I have heard it from students (including those from Nixa). But I have also heard people willing to give the LDS Church the benefit of the doubt.
“[On Monday] a letter writer made the opposite case in the Springfield News-Leader. He argued that ‘Mormons are Christians.'”
A Different Year
But the biggest caveat on all this looking back at 2008 is that a past election, in many ways, is ancient history. Those primaries took places before the economy hit the skids hard, before the rise of the Tea Party movement on the right and before President Barack Obama’s election.
Those are some big changes for 2012 and they may mean the votes in these places shape up differently.
For instance, cultural issues always matter in an Evangelical Epicenter like Nixa, but Schmalzbauer says the economy has become THE issue there. “The number of homeless students in the Nixa district has risen to 70,” he writes. “The Council of Churches of the Ozarks ministry CrossLines (a food pantry) has seen demand skyrocket.”
And up in Sioux Center, Iowa, King says even if people don’t “like” Mitt Romney, they probably like the president a lot less. “If Romney is the nominee where else are conservatives going to go, right? Not to Obama for sure. The Iowa GOP caucuses are likely to be divided unless something changes, but Tractor Country folks will follow any GOP leader all the way to November.”
Of course, the challenge for Romney is to get enough support in these communities to get to Election Day next November. And there is still a long road until then.