A Comparativist’s Perspective on Romney’s Challenge: He Won’t Have any Trouble Winning Back Santorum Voters

by Joshua Tucker on April 11, 2012 · 8 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics

Now that Rick Santorum has suspended his presidential campaign, we are going to see the inevitable slew of articles on how important/challenging it will be for Romney to win over Santorum’s voters for the general election (see here and here for example).

From the perspective of someone who studies comparative politics (otherwise known as domestic politics outside the United States), I would strongly urge the Obama campaign not to hold its breath over the possibility that the Santorum voters will somehow stay away from Romney in the fall. While of course it is possible that some Republicans who dislike Romney might be less likely to campaign for Romney or donate money to him than if Santorum had gotten the nomination, Romney is greatly helped by the fact that the US employs a presidential system of government. In the parlance of political science, the US presidency is a zero-sum contest: you either win or lose. As such, as long as Republicans can unite around a desire to unseat the president (which most will), the structure of the election provides no other viable option than to vote for Romney in order to accomplish that goal.

Moreover, the world is full of examples of political forces coming together under a common banner that have much less in common than the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican party to accomplish the shared goal of getting rid of a particular leader. One need look no farther than recent anti-Putin protests in Russia, which have featured collaboration between far-right nationalists, far-left communists, and liberal democrats. Indeed, part of the story of the collapse of communism in East-Central Europe was one where “umbrella movements” came together to oppose communist rule, only to break up into distinctly different parties once communism had collapsed. While I’m not suggesting that the Republican party will collapse following a Romney victory, the point is that whenever you have a zero-sum game, it is not surprising to find even forces with very different long-term interests putting aside those differences to collaborate on short-term goals.

I would even go so far as to say it is safe to ignore poll data taking during the campaign that might have suggested Santorum voters would rather stay home than vote for Romney. As I argued at approximately this time four years ago, there are rational reasons for supporters of a candidate to tell this to a pollster during a primary campaign (as well as psychological ones I’m sure), but it does not mean that voter won’t return to the fold come the general election.

One caveat is in order: I am not advancing the claim that the Republican primary has not hurt Romney. It may very well have damaged his standing among independents and/or provided valuable fodder for the Obama campaign down the road. But I seriously doubt that pushing Santorum supporters away from voting for the Republican ticket in the fall will turn out to be one of those consequences.

{ 8 comments }

Field April 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm

So to put it in layman terms the foe of my opponent is my ally?
Santorum was malicious and sanctimonious in his attacks on Romney and should be embarrassed for his presidential run. If Santorum’s followers and independents realize that, they will vote for Romney, if not Obama will win.

Jim April 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I am not sure any political scientist, regardless of sub-field, would argue that Santorum voters would not support Romney in the election. This is always a media-only argument (see, for example, the media on Clinton voters and Obama in 2008).

Joshua Tucker April 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Jim: That’s part of the goal of TMC – to get the political science story out there into the media discussion….

Jim April 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I realize this. My point was this isn’t just a comparative take on the situation – but ALL of political science’s take.

Jack S. April 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm

The message I got from Gary Cox (1997) was that it’s mainly up to the party to “make votes count.” On the supply side, this means finding ways to make Republican voters have that “desire to unseat the president.” On the demand side, it raises questions about how badly Republican voters want to get rid of Obama. As badly as Russian protesters want a transition from authoritarian rule? Maybe, but probably not.

There may be another useful comparative point to make. How robust is the organizational network behind an “umbrella movement”? Some level of formal organization in civil society seems to be a precondition for sustained anti-regime collective action (I’m looking at the country cases on the page you linked in your book). An out-of-work pollster quietly admits to me that, compared to the cornucopia of 501(c)3′s we see in the Democratic tent, there is little comparable grassroots organization in the Republican party.

2012 is going to come down to the effectiveness of the Republicans’ wedge issue. It will be interesting to see how that wedge stacks up against Obama-versus-Bain-Capital.

Anonymous Coward April 12, 2012 at 10:41 am

The catch is that you’re not just asking people who personally preferred another candidate to come back to the fold for Romney, or asking conservatives to come back to the fold and vote for a more moderate candidate than they’d really like. You’re also asking a lot of southern evangelicals to come back to the fold and vote for someone they think isn’t Christian.

Maybe things have changed. That someone as obviously Catholic as Santorum* was able to win southern states says that southern evangelicals may be willing to lay longstanding negative feelings aside. But I expect that he will not be able to recover as many other-primary-voters as a common or garden variety protestant would have.

*I would guess that not that many people knew that Gingrich had become Catholic.

Dan Burney April 15, 2012 at 11:17 am

I find it abhorrent what Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum did to fellow Republican Mitt Romney in the run up, they hit way below the belt with non-truths and attacked him using democrat propaganda, Yes Romney ran negative ads on them both but the where from the rights perspective of governing. Ad’s in which would not have hurt either men among inde’s, or blue dogs. The same cannot be said about Newt or Santorum they should be ashamed and if Romney losses’s I think it should be held squarely on the shoulders of Newt Gingrich for class warfare, and Rick Santorum for saying You mine as well vote for Obama over Romney. sickening

Michael Drew April 16, 2012 at 6:48 am

Doesn’t this treat the pool of potential conservative voters as more or less fixed, highly likely in the event to vote, and well-represented by the behavior of the primary electorate? I mean, Santorum voters per se are a pretty insignificant part of the conservative electorate. Yes, people who actually troubled to vote in the primary but who voted for Santorum are likely to come back and vote Romney. But that’s just a small part of the broader group of potential voters who are conservative who Romney will need to to motivate to go vote for the first time in 2012. These people were not motivated to vote in the primary, and Romney needs a goodly number of them. The conjecture is not that people who actually showed up to vote for Santorum will turn around and refuse to vote for Romney, but that marginally-apathetic though conservative potential voters will be relatively enough unenthused by the nomination of a perceived moderate that they’ll fail at the margin to be motivated to turn out to vote in enough numbers that it becomes a problem for Romney. This does largely depend on how widespread is an intense desire to remove Obama. But then that’s what it depends on, not on the likelihood of Santorum voters to actually be dead-enders. Polling showed that very few of them even claimed to be that, I believe.

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