In the cold, gray numbers of election returns and exit poll percentages, a reader with some imagination can find clues to people’s deep feelings, their hopes and fears, their self-images and moral values.
This is especially true in presidential primaries. In most general elections, 80 percent of voters vote for candidates of the party they prefer. In primaries, voters choose between specific individuals with greater differences in experience, background and character than on issues.
So it has been in this year’s contests, featuring candidates most voters didn’t know much about and about whom their judgment has often shifted. The lead in national polls has changed 11 times since August.
One constant factor in the 14 contests with exit polls is that Mitt Romney has tended to run best among high-income and high-education voters. His leading opponents — Newt Gingrich in South Carolina and Georgia, Ron Paul in Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia, and Rick Santorum everywhere else — have run best among low-income and low-education voters.
It is in the nature of political journalism that much attention is devoted to downscale voters. A question often asked is whether Republicans generally and Romney in particular can run well among blue-collar whites.
Actually, Republicans have done pretty well with this group. In the dreadful Republican year of 2008, exit polls showed John McCain carrying non-college whites by 58 to 40 percent over Barack Obama. George W. Bush did even better in 2004.
This year, Obama campaign strategists have signaled that they’re not targeting the folks that Obama, speaking to rich liberals at a San Francisco Bay area fundraiser, characterized as bitterly clinging to guns and God. They’re targeting the college-educated, the young and Latinos instead.
There is little or no evidence that downscale whites have more positive feelings about Obama than they did then. They dislike Obamacare and the stimulus package. The president gives them little sense that he is in sympathy with their values.
The affluent are another matter. Republicans have been losing ground with them since the 1990s. Non-Southern suburban counties whose big majorities delivered electoral votes to George H.W. Bush in 1988 have been trending to Democrats, as affluent suburbanites, especially women, were repelled by Republicans’ stands on cultural issues like abortion and by the increasing Southern and evangelical tone of the party.
The four suburban counties outside Philadelphia, for example, voted 61 percent for Bush in 1988, and he carried Pennsylvania. In 2008, they voted 57 percent for Barack Obama, and he carried the state.
Those latter figures are not, as some analysts seem to think, etched in stone. The financial crisis and recession have switched voters’ focus from cultural issues to the economy. The gap between Obama’s proposed top tax rate of over 40 percent and the Republicans’ 28 percent is wider than any since the 1980s.
The cold gray numbers tell us that Romney has an affirmative appeal to this constituency. He has run 4 to 12 points ahead of his statewide average among over $100,000 voters in every exit poll.
He carried affluent Oakland County northwest of Detroit, where he grew up, by 31,565 votes. He carried the rest of Michigan by 413. In Ohio, he carried the mostly affluent vote in the counties containing Cleveland and Cincinnati by 31,682 votes — three times his statewide margin.
I sense that affluent voters find Romney a kindred spirit — articulate but politically awkward, self-disciplined and successful, able to make a sharp argument but polite. He’s conservative on cultural issues, but in a way that reminds me of the 18th century Englishwoman’s gravestone noting approvingly that “she was religious without enthusiasm.”
Barack Obama’s appeal to high-education and young voters in the Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana primaries carried over into the general election. He carried all three in November, though none was a target state in 2000 or 2004.
Will Romney’s appeal to high-education and high-income voters carry over to the general election, too? That’s not clear.
But the Pew poll tells us that Republican party identification has risen 9 points from 2008 among Jewish voters — a small but important part of this constituency. And exit polls show that Catholics, another important part, have gone for Romney in all but two Southern states.
The cold gray numbers don’t tell us for sure. But they suggest that affluent voters may be up for grabs this year.