Romney’s Challenge in Ohio

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Just hours after grinding out an ugly win in Michigan, Mitt Romney packed his bags for Ohio, another recession-racked Midwestern state where he’ll have to surmount similar demographic challenges without the benefits of home-field advantage. 

In Michigan, Romney and Rick Santorum cobbled together vastly different coalitions. Exit polls showed that Romney’s primary redoubt were the affluent Oakland County suburbs around Detroit, while Santorum prevailed in rural, more conservative swaths of Northern and Western Michigan. Beyond the geographic divide, which tracks a pattern that dates back to Iowa, there were divides of faith and class. Both presage trouble for Romney in the Buckeye State showdown.

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Despite Santorum’s devout Catholicism, Romney beat Santorum, 44% to 37%, among Michigan Catholics, who comprised 30% of the state’s electorate. In Ohio, by contrast, Catholics were just one-quarter of the vote in 2008. Meanwhile, Santorum trounced Romney among Michigan’s Evangelicals by sixteen points. Such voters amounted to 39% of the vote in the Wolverine State. Four years ago, evangelicals made up 44% of the Ohio electorate.

A bigger hurdle for Romney is class. Throughout the 2012 primary, the former leveraged-buyout executive has struggled to connect with working-class workers, a deficiency that he underlined with a series of clunkers in Michigans, from his wife’s Cadillacs to his Nascar-owner pals to his strange crack that suggested as passel of poncho-wearing supporters were cheap. Romney’s strength among wealthy Republicans and weakness among its working-class set was made plain in Michigan, where he dominated Santorum 48% to 34% among the one-third of the electorate earning more than $100,000 per year but lost the two-thirds who make less than six figures. Though Michigan was ravaged by the recession, Ohio is a less affluent state: in 2008, just 21% of Buckeye State Republican voters reported earning six-figure salaries.

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One advantage Romney will have is that Ohio is a closed primary. In a feat of sanctioned chicanery, 9% of Michigan voters were Democrats, many of whom crossed over to back Santorum in an attempt to kneecap Romney, whom most perceive as the stronger general-election challenger. Among the 60% of the electorate who identified as Republicans, Romney notched an 11-point advantage. He’ll need to preserve that margin to nip Santorum in another key Midwestern bellwether on March 6.

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