Personal favorability ratings will not decide 2012 presidential race

It has become a common refrain in journalistic and political circles to describe the winner of close presidential contests as winning due to voters “wanting to have a beer with the president.”  Forgetting for the moment a lot of women don’t like beer or men for that matter, nor vote on this issue, this idea has taken deep root in political circles.  Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans increasingly fret in state and federal contests when their candidate’s favorable numbers go up and down.

A point of clarification for those who may need it.  Personal favorability ratings are quite different then job approval numbers.  The factors that go into favorability numbers are as much psychological as political.  It is not necessarily something we even think about.  It can be a gut-reaction made at one moment in time that does not change. So one can oppose the president of the opposite party and disapprove of his job performance yet have a personally favorable view of the man. Job approval of the president depends more on the political context and your ideological beliefs.  Yet the proof on whether elections hinge on personal favorability numbers is yet to be found.

No strong correlation to date has been found between an incumbent president or challenger winning the White House based on personal favorability numbers.  Instead the evidence for such beliefs is far more anecdotal.  In the 80’s Reagan connected with voters because of his forceful actions and speeches while Carter was best remembered for his “Malaise speech in 79.  In 84 Reagan faced a white-collar Northeastern liberal who related to people almost as well as John Kerry did in 04.  In 88 H.W. Bush faced the same thing except Bush did not relate well to people either  It did help when  his challenger gave a horrific answer on what he would do if his family was killed.  In 92 Bill Clinton defeated H.W by connecting with conservatively rural voters.  Ditto in 96 when the GOP ran a pitiful moderate excuse for a candidate in Bob Dole.

Yet in 2000 both Al Gore and G.W. Bush were popular with voters.  Of course Bush ending up winning a contested election.  The belief that candidates who win the battle of “the president voters want to have a beer with” was revived mightily in 2004.  It seemed pundits and journalists were at a loss to explain how Bush won the election with sub-par approval ratings and lost key suburbs across the nation.  This helped them thus explain how Bush won.  Nevermind it was not grounded in fact but yet more anecdotal evidence.

In fact, this theory showed strong signs of life in 2008.  Barack Obama won a landslide election by bringing out voters of all ages and stripes due to his hopeful message and youth.  It yet again helped journalists and pundits explain how Obama cruised into the WH.  But this forgets that Obama was running in an environment where the market had tanked over 5,000 points, the economy was shedding jobs at a massive rate and all under the incumbent party.

What elections are determined by goes far deeper than personal favorability ratings.  Job approval, the state of the economy and the pertinent issues of the time all have more statistically verifiable impact on a race.  Look at the 2000 presidential race.  By the end of his term Bill Clinton had close to a 60% approval rating and the economy was booming.  His VP Al Gore benefitted from these numbers and almost won despite running a poor campaign.  In 2004 Bush had sub-par approval ratings (barely above 50% on election day) yet won because the economy was humming along and he ran an excellent campaign (okay, Karl Rove did).

Of course having a horrific personal favorability number is a bad thing.  If voters personally dislike you what are the odds they back you at the ballot box?  Not good I bet.  Campaigns spend millions on demonizing their opposition in an effort to drive up their unfavorables.  The core of this belief is that voters go with their feelings and not their heads.  If only this were true.  There are numerous examples of cases where a candidate or incumbent spent big on driving home a negative message about their opposition but lost.  The counter would be there are numerous cases where it has worked.

Both are of course true depending on the race, candidates and a whole host of other factors.  But favorability numbers are yet one factor in how a voter voters. Voters are far more likely to back or oppose a candidate based on the national mood, candidate/incumbent’s job approval numbers or ideology.  All correlate far more strongly to how a voter will act in the ballot box than favorability numbers.

Case in point.  Let’s take a look at the 2004 presidential exit polls taken from CNN.  Ideologically liberals broke 85%-13% for Kerry over Bush.  Bush won conservatives 84%-15%.  Moderates who tend to swing backed Kerry 54%-45%.  Among those who did not decide who to vote for until the end Kerry won them 53%-44%.  Bush easily won evangelicals and Protestants while Kerry won atheists and Jews. On job approval those who strongly approved of Bush on election day backed him 94%-5%, somewhat approve 83%-15%.  Among those who somewhat disapproved they backed Kerry 18%-80% and among those who strongly disapproved they backed Kerry 97%-2%.  Among partisans the connection was also easy to see.

This example is not to say all voting patterns stay static.  Look at how the GOP won women for the first time in a decade in 2010.  And yet women have now swung back to the Democrats as the economy has receded as the pertinent issue o them (free birth control is apparently)  But there are far more numerous factors that affect a vote then a gut reaction about a candidate/incumbent.

And that brings us to the 2012 presidential race.  Obama has maintained respectable favorability numbers yet sub-par approval ratings.  Meanwhile likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney has high unfavorable numbers compared to the president.  Yet if one looks closely at the polls they see an inconsistency.  Romney is running well ahead of his favorability numbers in surveys in head-to-head match-ups against the president.  This is for a whole host of factors but it points to a key point both campaigns and the media should be aware of.  Depending on the election and its context favorability numbers only go so far.

Both the Romney and Obama campaigns are sure to spend millions and millions on winning the “guy who relates with voters” better war.  But in the end 2012 is a defining election.  We can drown in a mountain of debt or right the fiscal ship.  We can let the government continue to grow, become more intrusive or we can put a stop to it.  And we can either continue to have a stalled economy or cutting red tape and needless regulation to allow it to grow again.  These are the things voters will ultimately decide 2012 on.  What was it a famous man once said back in the Great Depression?  Oh yes, “When your neighbor is out of work it is a recession.  When you are out of work it is a depression.”  So true, and it could decide the 2012 presidential race.

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Pennsylvania will be Rick Santorum’s Gettysburg

On Tuesday night, March 20th, Rick Santorum declared his campaign would keep on fighting in a press conference in Gettysburg, PA.  Santorum jetted out of Illinois earlier in the day when exit polls showed he would lose the state, badly and badly he did lose the state.

The symbolism of having a press conference at Gettysburg cannot be understated.  Santorum meant to have his press conference in the town.  First, it signified that for Santorum losing PA would be the end of the road.  He would have nothing else to hang his hat on winning that means something.  He has lost every other major state to Romney and trials Romney in delegates by the hundreds.  Second, just as the South did with Pickett’s Charge Santorum intends to throw everything into the state and leave little back.  Third, and most noticeable is the historical impact of this town, especially among Southerners.  These are the voters who inhabit the rural inner “Alabama” of PA between Philly and SE Pennsylvania.  Santorum needs them on election day.

To get to PA though come a set of races that Santorum must win.  This Saturday Santorum is set to win the LA primaries but what else is new?  He wins evangelicals and very conservative voters, a majority of the GOP in the deep South, but few other voters.  Then comes April 3rd and primaries in DC, Maryland and WI.  Romney is sure to win CT and Maryland but Wisconsin could prove to be a savior or disaster for Santorum.  The GOP electorate of WS is far more rural and Midwestern conservative then Illinois, perhaps even Ohio.

But even if Santorum wins WI, and right now the odds are about 50/50 until Romney starts campaigning and pounding the air/TV waves with his message, he is unlikely to make headway in the delegate count.  Romney is sure to win DC and Maryland and get a share of the delegates from WI.  And no new primaries com up until the end of April on the 24th.  Then 231 delegates are up for grab, 72 in PA alone.  But PA means more to Santorum than delegates.  It is his home state, a fact the media will hammer home again and again on election night, and a swing state.  Santorum winning their might keep his campaign alive a little longer, even if he loses NY, RI, DE and CT, the other states that vote that day.  Those states have far less rural and more upper-income and educated GOP voters.  Plus regionally those states lie in Romney’s geographic zone.

But let’s end the questioning of whether Santorum will even win PA.  He won’t.  How do I deduce this?  Simple.  He can’t afford to win it, literally.  Santorum will pour money into PA but Romney has far more cash on hand and is attracting new larger donors to his camp.  Romney can easily outspend Santorum.  Worse for Santorum is that the establishment GOP is now publicly picking a side in the nomination battle, even establishment conservatives such as Jeb Bush.  That likely means lawmakers will campaign in the state for Romney.  Santorum’s organizational woes will also cost him.  In yet another state, Santorum’s campaign failed to file with the state delegate slates for individual Congressional Districts. That means Santorum could win the popular vote in PA but lose the delegate count in the state and of course likely the night regardless of PA’s outcome.

Santorum’s campaign has been living on  wing and a prayer since Michigan.  Only the fact he has won TN and OK on Super Tuesday has kept talk of him having any chance alive.  But now that talk is turning to why he still is in the race?  Lacking cash, an organization and a base to build on Santorum is likely to limp into PA, regardless of whether he wins WI or not.  Romney may be battered and bruised more by the end of April but the fundamental dynamics of the race will not change.  Romney will have a better organization, more cash, and the suburban vote in his pocket when PA votes.

As for Santorum after he loses PA perhaps he should take a note from the South after Pickett’s Charge and leave the field of battle to the victor.

Update: It continues to look ever more likely Romney will win WI and roll into April strong.  A new Rasmussen poll found him up 13 and a new Marquette University poll found him up 8 points.  The latest Franklin & Marshall poll finds Santorum already slipping at home without Romney having spent a single cent in the race to date.  Romny only trals 30%-28% in the survey.

Could Idaho Democrats be even more irrelevant after 2012?

There is little doubt two of the headlines to come out of the 2012 Idaho legislative elections will be about Idaho going for the Republican nominee for president and an influx of conservative freshman lawmakers entering the House and Senate due to redistricting and retirements.  But a third headline could also be whether Idaho Democrats are even still relevant?

Idaho Democrats only occupy 7 of the 35 seats in the Senate and a mere 13 out of 70 in the House.  A solid 7 of their 13 members in the House and 3 in the Senate represent metro Boise making the party’s strength in the state increasingly tied to urban interests.  Witness the major debates of the 2011 legislative session.  On the budget, Education Reform and major cuts to Medicaid all 20 Democrats stood in lock-step against any change of the status quo.  That stance might play in Boise, where younger voters and teachers play a dominant role in local politics but outside of Boise not so much.  And the outcomes of all those fights were decided in GOP circles regardless of Democratic opposition.

Redistricting was not kind to Democrats this cycle either.  Despite the 1st Commission’s failure to even pass a legislative or Congressional plan, and then the 2nd Commission’s legislative map being rejected and quickly reworked Democrats are unlikely to make any new gains in Idaho over the next decade.  Democrats completely control Districts 16, 17, one House seat in 18, and 19, all in Boise.  Despite the Commission being made up of three Republicans and three Democrats the Commission drew new lines that shoved several Democratic precincts from 16 and 17 into 19.  Districts 16 and 17 used to be competitive districts and the GOP hopes they can be again.  District 18, SE Boise, is without a doubt the swingiest district in Ada County.  In 2006 it gave Democrats complete control of all its representation and in 2010 it gave back to the GOP a House and Senate seat  by a combined 128 vote margin.  Under the new map the district becomes slightly more Democratic but remains competitive.

Moving outside of Boise Democrats look likely to lose what is left of their endangered incumbents.  In the new 29th District Democratic Senator Diane Bilyeu saw her district become even more competitive.  Short of Pocatello she has no base to rely on.  Even in 2006 and 2008 she struggled and she barely survived in 2010. In 2012 under the new lines she could be out.  In the new District 6 Latah County is cut into three different legislative districts.  For  freshman Democratic Senator Dan Schmidt who seemed to get in only because of his weak opposition and Rep. Shirley Ringo those new cuts could also mean an early retirement in 2012.  Rep. John Rusche in District 7 could also be endangered.  His district was reworked to take into parts of the more rural and conservative county of Clearwater.  Only Boise Democrats appear to be able to take heart from this map.

Democrats made little headway in the Congressional map either.  The more conservative suburbs in SE Boise stayed in the 1st CD while the more liberal aspects of SE Boise stayed in the very rural, very Mormon, and very Republican 2nd CD.  Only a bad nominee looks likely to cost the GOP either seat in the next 10 years.

Democrats do have pick-up opportunities at the legislative level in District 18.  But freshman Senator Mitch Toryanski and Rep. Julie Ellsworth have positioned themselves to the middle.  The rematch of 2010 with Durst or Toryanski and Janie-Ward Endelking for Ellsworth promises to be a doozy.  But short of that the new map looks unlikely to yield them any new seats short of a few surprise losses for the GOP.

But it is not just redistricting that seems to ensure Democrat’s irrelevance in Idaho for the next decade.  Their rigid allegiance to their national party’s platform and representation of primarily urban interests promises them little new clout.  Voters have been fleeing metro Boise for the heavily GOP suburbs of Eagle, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, etc.  This population migration might make the suburbs competitive at some point, along with the growth of the Hispanic population, but not in the next decade.

Democrats have consistently struck a tone on issues that appeals to the younger and more urban demographics of Boise.  But along the way that has damaged the prospects of Democrats like Bilyeu, Rusche and Ringo.  These Democrats are more moderate than their Boise and let’s not forget Sun Valley partisan fellows and ladies.  But they stood by their fellow members in opposition to the GOP in 2011 even as Republican registration in the state hit a new high.  There may come a day when Idaho politics is once again competitive.  But until then Democrats look likely to be irrelevant not just in 2012 but well into the future.

What the GOP Illinois Primary tells us

With 95% of precincts reporting Mitt Romney is cruising to an easy 47%-35% victory over Rick Santorum.  Even better for Romney he is winning multiple delegate races in Congressional districts that he won the beauty contest popular vote for.  Exit polls conducted tell the tale of how Romney won in Illinois.

The exit polls find that both Romney and Santorum once again relied deeply on their bases of support.  But just as in OH and MI Romney did better than usual among the groups that Santorum relies on the most.  In Illinois the exceptions were that Romney actually did better among men then women and won a plurality of those who support the Tea Party.  Romney ran strongest among senior voters and the 84% of the electorate that had some college or a college degree. Romney racked up huge margins among those who earned over $100 and actually won those that made $30-100 thousand.

Santorum’s strength was unsurprisingly among evangelicals, those earning under $30 thousand, those without a college degree and very conservative voters.  Yet he managed to barely rack up double-digit wins among these groups, ensuring his night would be a long one.

Romney easily won Republicans 51%-36%.  And perhaps more telling of his general election strength he won independents 44%-28%.  Ideologically Romney won moderates/liberals 48%-27%.  Santorum won very conservative voters 48%-37%.  What put Romney over the top was his massive 55%-31% win among the large group that identified as “somewhat conservative”.  Not surprisingly. Santorum won Protestants and Romney won Catholics.  And predictably, those that valued defeating Obama and experience overwhelmingly backed Romney while those who valued being a true conservative or strong moral character backed Santorum.

Turnout in the race was low.  But the bragging rights without a doubt go to Romney.  Romney won a solid majority of the delegates tonight and utterly crushed Santorum among the groups he needs to win to garner credence to the idea he can beat Obama in November.  Regionally Romney won the Collar Counties and every major metro area whereas Santorum won most downstate counties.  But just as among individual voting groups, Santorum did not rack up huge margins in the downstate counties.

For Santorum yet another loss in a Midwestern state and his lack of organization and outreach to moderate voters has to be a blow.  Santorum’s campaign now has to weigh whether it can continue.  They have some money but not enough to compete with Romney.  Romney’s support is essentially solid and not going anywhere.  Meanwhile. with Gingrich vowing to stay in the race the South which favors Santorum may give him popular vote victories but it will not give him many more delegates than Romney gets (his support is not split).

Romney’s team has to be happy about tonight’s results.  The massive amount of money they spent paid off as turnout was heavy in the Collar Counties compared to downstate.  Another feather in the Romney campaign’s cap has to be that they ran well among Santorum”s core groups and can limit their loss in LA on Saturday.  If they can carry this momentum into April and win a state like WI, which votes on April 3 with DC and Maryland, then the pressure for Santorum to drop out would become very, very public and not just internal as Romney racks up more and more delegates.  He won 42 of the delegates Illinois had to give while Santorum a mere 10.

For Gingrich and Paul there is little to say.  They had little impact in the race and did not compete heavily in the state.  Both have no shot in the nomination contest and they know so.  But Paul is nurturing a movement he hopes can take over the GOP someday.  Gingrich has a forlorn hope of winning Southern states but it seems he is staying in the race just to spite Santorum and inadvertently helping the man he loathes, Mitt Romney.

Notable Mention: In the hotly contested GOP primary contest in the 16th CD freshman Rep. Adam Kizinger defeated 10 term Rep. Don Manzullo.  The primary was seen not just as generational but also increasingly bitter between to different brands of conservatism.  Manzullo, despite his tenure in Congress was seen as the Tea Party candidate, notably for endorsements from groups like Freedomworks and the Illinois Tea Party.  Kizinger received notable endorsements from Majority Leader Eric Cantor and received outside help from public accountability PAC “The Campaign for Primary Accountability.”  Kizinger’s win ensures he will return to Congress next year (barring a major scandal).

Update: Since last night Romney has surged from a 4 point lead in Galup’s daily tracking poll to 10 points over Santorum.  He also has seen a new influx of cash from donors and even more importantly just received the notable endorsement of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.  Several commentators and writers from both left and right leaning blogs and papers are now calling the race over in all but a concession speech from Santorum, Gingrich and Paul.

Racial lines color political support

One of the most lamented but rarely discussed aspects of American politics is how racial it has become.  Exhibit A would the current GOP presidential contest and Exhibit B would the 2008 Democratic Presidential contest.  In both cases, race has been an underlying factor in driving the races.

In not a single Caucus in this GOP nomination contest has the minority share of the electorate been more than 10%.  Until Puerto Rico’s primary only two states (Florida and MI) seen the minority share of the electorate equal 10%.  And only in MI has the minority share of the nominating electorate increased from 2008 (a mere 4%).  The GOP has high hopes of winning more than 1/5th of minority votes in 2012.  Yet the lack of minority interest in the GOP nominating contests has to say something.  When over 90% of your nominating electorate is white in a state like NV, where in 2008 whites only made up 69% of the electorate, you know you have an issue.

In 2008 African-Americans and upper-scale whites overwhelmingly went to Obama in almost every contest.  Yet in more down-scale states with more blue-collar, socially conservative white Democrats (what is left of them) and Hispanics Clinton did much better.  Perhaps showcasing how reliant the Democratic party has become on minority votes almost half of the nomination ballots in 2008 were cast by minorities.  Of course the mere 43% of white votes Obama received in 2008, especially from areas where Clinton carried white voters, is also a reminder how quickly the Democratic Party is losing its old blue-collar white base.

Combing through electoral history we can easily see this trend.  Since Gallup and other agencies started using exit polls (1952) no Democratic President has failed to carry at least 75% of the black vote.  Until the late 1990s African-Americans made up the bulk of the US’s minority vote.  But the massive growth of the Hispanic population and Pacific Islander population means that new minority voters are entering the political scene.  And their leanings in recent elections have definitely been left leaning.  The GOP’s high-water mark among Hispanic voters was in 2004 when President George W. Bush managed to carry only 44% of their votes.

In 2008 Barack Obama carried over 70% of the Pacific Islander vote and more significantly 68% of the Hispanic population.  Recent 2012 election polls show his support has softened among this group until he is matched up against a named GOP challenger.  Then he does even better in polls then his winning margin in 2008.

The GOP has several large ongoing outreach programs in states ranging from Florida (whose Hispanic population is Cuban in origin and more conservative) to Arizona and Nevada.  But listen to the GOP presidential candidates on the stump and one would think minorities are a foreign species.  One has to be struck by how eye-opening it was to see then presidential nominee and TX Governor Rick Perry be criticized after a debate for trying to educate and integrate Hispanics into TX society with a college credit.  Not out of sympathy but so they could join society and pay taxes.  Even when TX governmental data showed barely 1% of all TX college students are Hispanics receiving this credit he received flak.  Mitt Romney, the GOP frontrunner for the nomination, even appears to be a fan of self-deportation.

Certainly the GOP does not bear all the blame for how racially polarized our elections have become.  Democrats. as much as Republicans, were happy to see the Civil Rights Act pass so they could get a few Congressional Districts out of an increasingly conservative South.  Also, measures such as the CRA and affirmative Action have only hardened minority support for Democrats while angering conservative whites.   With the growing Hispanic population and whites becoming less conservative due to demographic shifts (millennial Generation being a striking example) Democrats certainly have helped bring this shift about.

Yet even the Democrats and the GOP’s newest minority stars are drowned out by the majority voices of their parties.  On the Democratic side the voices of those like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton ring loud and clear.  And on the GOP side a dozen strong voices echoing the sentiments of “self-deportation” and inferences all illegals are criminals ring clear on the GOP side.  Something has to change and it needs to be soon if the four letter word in our electoral system is seriously discussed.

Until that happens elections will continue to hinge on whether minority voters turn out (predominantly for one party) and how many more blue-collar whites (and how many whites overall) vote for the Republican nominee.  And that cannot be a good thing for America.

Romney can hurt Santorum in Ilinois

The next big state in the GOP presidential calendar is (drum-roll please) Illinois.  Like Michigan and Ohio before it, the state of Illinois offers strengths and weaknesses to both Romney and Santorum.  Santorum will run well downstate but Romney will likely rack up big margins in Cook County and the Collar Counties (suburbs of Chicago).

Up to the beginning of last week neither Romney nor Santorum had spent any time in he state nor spent any money.  Romney has had volunteers on the ground since last year getting delegates for to support him however.  Due to the way Illinois’s primary operates voters will not directly vote for any GOP candidate.  Instead they will vote for delegates who will have next to their name the candidate they support.  Just as in Ohio before him, Santorum will be at a disadvantage as he failed to organize a campaign and get a full slate of people to act as delegates for him.

The lack of interest in the state by any campaign changed last week.  Romney and his Super PAC “Restore our Future” have begun airing almost $2 million in TV and radio ads in the suburbs and downstate.  Santorum plans to hit the state as early as Friday as does Ron Paul.  Gingrich plans to make a visit in the state but he is expected to focus more on Louisiana, which votes the Saturday after Illinois on the 24th.  For his part Romney does not plan to visit the state Monday but he has plans to spend a full day in the state.

The only recent poll on the race is one from the Chicago Tribune.  Taken before the results of Mississippi and Alabama’s primaries and Hawaii’s and A. Samoa’s Caucuses were announced the poll found Romney ahead 35%-31% over Santorum.  Gingrich had 12% and Paul 7%.  But leading GOP insiders believe the poll may underestimate Romney’s lead.  In Cook County Romney lead 39%-30% and in the Collar Counties Romney lead 39%-27%.  Santorum leads downstate (all the other counties outside Chicago and its suburbs) 35%-29%.  However some analysts say the poll undersampled Cook and the Collar Counties. Historically these counties have produced easily more than half of the GOP primary vote in the state.

Demographical and regional trends also show in the survey.  Santorum led by large margins among born again Christians and evangelicals.  He dominated among very conservative voters and surprisingly downstate Catholics.  Romney held a small lead among the 40% who identified as somewhat conservative and easily led among th 31% of moderates 39%-17%.  Suburban women backed Romney 45%-27% and women in general favored Romney.  Men split almost evenly in support between Romney and Santorum.

Romney seems to have firmer support then Santorum.  While 46% of all voters said they could change their minds 61% of Romney voters did not.  Only 51% of Santorum voters said the same.  In a worrying sign for Santorum a majority of downstate voters, 52%, said they could change their minds.  This opens the door for Romney’s campaign and his Super PAC to dominate the airwaves and define Santorum while his campaign cannot respond.

While Illinois is a Midwestern state and it resembles Ohio and Michigan in some respects the state is tailor-made for Romney.  The suburbs will likely produce over 50% of the GOP vote, its sheer size means Romney’s campaign can easily outmobilize Santorum’s lack of one and Romney’s money advantage (present but diminishing) allows him to define Santorum to voters unsure of their choices.  For Romney anything less than a 5% victory would likely be considered a underachievement.

But if Romney can outperform expectations, like he did in MI and OH among those without a college education or earning $50,000 or less (like many downstate voters), pulling down a win between 6%-10% then he could decisively take Santorum down a peg and rack up a huge popular vote and delegate margin.

Santorum’s hill is much steeper to climb.  His campaign still lacks money and infrastructure,  Worse, he is not leading in the polls heading into primary day and has little cash to contest Romney’s message.  And without foot soldiers on the ground Santorum will be unable to drive out turnout downstate (assuming the majority of undecideds and maybes stick with him) and even the suburbs.

In Illinois Romney can deliver a stunning rebuke to Santorum.  This will especially hurt if as expected Romney wins Puerto Rico and all of its 23 delegates on Sunday.  But even if Romney does win Illinois he still will continue to face a long primary season and have to wait until March to start seriously racking up delegates again.

Update: Two new polls out of Illinois show Romney leading.  a Fox News poll shows him leading 37%-31% over Santorum.  A new Rasmussen Reports poll shows Romney leading 41%-32%.  Both polls confirm the demographic and geographic strengths of each candidate and find, just as the Chicago Tribune poll did, there are more undecided voters downstate then in the suburbs.

Romney candidacy a boon to swing state Republicans

Rick Santorum might appeal to social conservatives and the right more than Mitt Romney but in swing Senate races that can be as much a hinderance as help.  Santorum might be able to bring out more social conservatives but in return he could lose moderate, suburban voters.  Considering split-ticket voting has gone the way of the dinosaur a polarizing presidential candidate could severely hurt the GOP’s chances of winning the Senate or holding the House in November.

Many GOP analysts and strategists believe that Romney would not drag down the GOP ticket.  He would be a good top-ticket candidate because he does not connect with voters the way Santorum does.  In swing suburban districts Romney’s personal brand and his emphasis on fiscal issues would likely play better among a more diverse electorate ideologically.

Santorum has made a living off of his socially conservative positions winning multiple races.  But in 2006 the limits of his strategy was apparent when he lost his Senate reelection bid in 2006 by almost 20 points.  Santorum won the many rural counties in the Southwest of the state but was utterly destroyed in the Pennsylvania suburbs. In 2010 when Republican Pat Toomey won Arlen Specter’s Senate seat he ran ahead in the suburbs (ever so slightly).

The GOP has a number of high-profile Senate races which may hinge on how the suburbs swing.  The most watched are the races in VA, MA, NV, FL and Ohio (with Pennsylvania perhaps in the mix).  Due to demographics and the nature of these states electorates winning the suburbs is actually more important than just bringing out the base.

In Virginia you have former Governor and Senator George Allen, a notable conservative, running against former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine.  Both Kaine and Allen plan to stress fiscal issues in the campaign but it is notable that Allen has dropped slightly behind Kaine in the latest polls taken.  This drop has occurred as the VA legislature has brought social issues front and center and the GOP presidential candidates have hammered the president on contraceptives.  Allen’s drop in support has come from NoVA, where many sprawling and expanding suburbs exist.  For Allen to win this seat for the GOP he needs to at least run even and rack huge margins elsewhere in VA.  Romney could help him do this.

In both Florida and Ohio the GOP has good candidates running.  Polls show the race in Florida is close whereas polls on Ohio give the Democratic Senator a little bit of an edge.  In both cases, how the numerous suburbs in each state swing could sway the races.  Mitt Romney has proven he can carry the suburbs and major cities of FL and OH (FL was a closed primary, OH open).  Santorum in Ohio however carried virtually every other county in the state.

In Nevada Romney could be an especially big help to interim GOP Senator Dean Heller  Romney could play well in moderate, suburban Clark County and bring out the GOP heavy Mormon vote.  Heller already has deep ties to swing Washoe County (Reno) due to representing the area for a decade.  By contrast Santorum could bring out the GOP rural vote but unless he played well with Hispanics or somehow made inroads with the suburbs this likely would cost Heller the seat.

Perhaps no other candidate would benefit more from a Romney candidacy than Scott Brown in Massachusetts.  Brown has positioned himself as left of center on social issues and right of center on fiscal issues.  Romney still engenders fond feelings from MA voters, especially the massive bloc that identifies as independents, and that could help Brown pull just enough of the independent vote to hold his seat for a full term.  Brown faces a liberal and progressive firebrand in Elizabeth Warren and if he has a moderate GOP candidate at the top of the ticket it would be easier to paint Warren as an extreme, far left candidate, even for Massachusetts voting standards.

Both Romney and Santorum have undeniable advantages.  Santorum plays better among low-income whites, rural and evangelical voters.  Romney’s strength comes from the suburbs and winning independents and moderates.  In the GOP presidential primary Romney’s strength has been a weakness.  But in the general election Romney’s strength could be the reason the GOP takes the Senate and easily holds the House.