Romney vs. Santorum: Class warfare in the GOP

Rick Santorum has become a wealthy man since he left the US Senate, but his family background is a lot more working-class than Mitt Romney's. That could help him in Michigan and Ohio primaries.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally in Kentwood, Mich., Wednesday, Feb. 15. Romney is faltering with white working-class voters crucial to his party’s drive to capture the White House. That’s a problem for him because he’s trying to fend off a rising GOP challenger, Rick Santorum, who appeals strongly to that group.
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There are four candidates left standing in the GOP presidential nomination contest. But it’s really come down to a two-man race heading toward primary elections in Arizona and Michigan, then on to Super Tuesday with ten more contests and a lot more convention delegates than have been at stake so far.

For recently surging Rick Santorum and Republican establishment favorite Mitt Romney, the battle at this point couldn’t be closer or more important.

Michigan – Romney’s nominal home state (although he hasn’t lived there for years and was most notably governor of Massachusetts) could be make-or-break.

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The headline this week in the Detroit Free Press had to be jolting for Romney: “New polls show Rick Santorum leading Mitt Romney in Michigan primary race.”

“An MRG Michigan Poll, done with Lansing-based Inside Michigan Politics, showed Santorum up 43-33 percent on Romney, trailed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 11 percent and US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 8 percent,” the newspaper reported. “Mitchell Research, a polling firm in East Lansing, released a survey showing Santorum ahead of Romney 34-25, with Paul at 11 percent and Gingrich at 5 percent.” 

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Meanwhile, the Real Clear Politics average of five polls has Santorum ahead of Romney in Michigan by 8 percentage points.

That has left some Republican Party insiders worrying about what to do if Romney loses the state where his father was a popular governor and top auto executive.

“If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate,” a Republican US senator, who has not endorsed any of the presidential candidates, told Jonathan Karl of ABC News.

“We’d get killed” if Romney manages to win the nomination after he failed to win the state in which he grew up, the senator told Karl. “He’d be too damaged.”

Republicans like to charge President Obama with engaging in “class warfare.” But among Republican primary voters and caucus participants, there’s evidence of a divide along economic class lines as well.

“In every contest held so far in which exit polling is available, Romney has done progressively worse as a voter’s income has dropped,” points out Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post’s “Morning Fix” political column Saturday. “Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada all showed Romney performing between 8 and 20 percent worse among voters making less than $50,000, compared to those making more than $100,000. And the two states with the highest percentages of voters making less than $100,000 – Iowa and South Carolina – happen to be the two states of those five that he has lost.”

That helps explain why Santorum (eventually, once the votes were properly counted) won Iowa. And it’s part of his strategy going into Ohio as well.

A Quinnipiac University poll of likely Ohio Republican primary voters this past week has Santorum ahead of Romney 36-29 percent (with Gingrich at 20 percent and Paul at 9 percent). In terms of “favorable” ratings, Santorum and Romney are virtually even at about 60 percent, according to Quinnipiac. But Romney has a significantly higher “unfavorable” rating than Santorum (25-7 percent).

As a Pew Research Center survey of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters this week shows, Santorum is benefitting from Gingrich’s flagging campaign – pulling ahead among anti-Romney conservatives.

“Rick Santorum’s support among Tea Party Republicans and white evangelicals is surging, and he now has pulled into a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican presidential nomination,” Pew reported.

His family’s working class background helps him as well.

“Santorum’s persona, his record, and his platform all have a populist tinge that plays well in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where swing voters tend to be socially conservative but economically middle-of-the-road,” writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “This means that Santorum can play the same anti-Bain, anti-rich-guy, blue-collar card that Gingrich tried to play in New Hampshire and South Carolina – but subtly, implicitly, in ways that don’t make him sound like he belongs in Occupy Wall Street instead of the Republican primary.”

Santorum was in Detroit this week before moving on to Ohio – “ground zero” in the campaign, he calls it – where he is spending Friday and Saturday. Real Clear Politics has him 7 percentage points ahead of Romney (33-26) in the Buckeye State.

Santorum released his tax returns this week, indicating that he’s become a near-millionaire since losing his US Senate seat. But he’s still a lot closer to the working-class end of the economic scale than Romney, and that could help him in Michigan and Ohio.

“If Santorum is ever to succeed at demonstrating that his mix of economic nationalism and cultural conservatism can galvanize the GOP's burgeoning working-class wing, he couldn't pick a better time than the next two weeks,” writes Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal.

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