Time for a postmortem on the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Yes, I know Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich are still out there saying interesting things. And that Rick Santorum says it’s only halftime and argues he can somehow overtake Mitt Romney by carrying his home state of Pennsylvania.
But polls there show a close race. And the idea that, if Romney falls short of a delegate majority, superdelegates will throng to a proudly unscripted, shoot-from-the-lip alternative is delusional.
The interesting questions are what the primaries and caucuses tell us about the state of the Republican Party and about Mitt Romney’s chances in the general election.
In 2000, a time of apparent peace and prosperity, George W. Bush won the nomination by consolidating cultural conservatives and making inroads among the affluent. Cultural issues were then more important than economics or foreign policy.
This year, a time of economic stagnation and lingering war, Mitt Romney won the nomination by consolidating the affluent and making inroads among tea partiers. Economic issues far overshadow cultural issues.
Romney’s victory margins have come from the suburbs in big metropolitan areas. Unlike Bush, he’s been losing the rural and small-town counties. “Somewhat conservative” voters now personify the Republican Party.
All of which suggests that this fall Romney may run much better than recent Republican nominees in affluent Northern suburbs. They’ve voted increasingly Democratic over the past 20 years, turning target states into safely Democratic states. Now they may turn back again.
Additional evidence comes from the Pew Research surveys showing Democrats losing ground in the Obama years among white Catholics and Jews — groups disproportionately concentrated in affluent Northern suburbs.
Affluent voters like articulate candidates and dislike impulsive ones. George W. Bush, despite his eloquent speeches, didn’t come across as articulate. He seemed to enjoy his Texas twang and mangled sentences with happy abandon.
John McCain, more articulate, came across as impulsive, notably when he suspended his campaign amid the financial meltdown.
Through the primaries, Mitt Romney has come across as articulate if not exciting and methodical rather than impulsive.
In contrast, Barack Obama has started to flail. His know-nothing assault on the Supreme Court and his demagogic denunciation of “social Darwinism” (a phrase more common on campus than in real life) make him look like he’s appealing to ignorant voters. Ditto his attacks on the rich.
Affluent voters don’t like that. That’s not what suburban supporters of Obama thought they were voting for in 2008.
They may not like Obama’s refusal to engage the looming entitlements crisis, either. They don’t admire people who act irresponsibly.
If Romney’s strength among the affluent opens up a new opportunity for Republicans, his and his primary opponents’ weakness among the young highlights a problem.
Under 30s were 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 and voted 66 to 32 percent for Obama.
Many are disenchanted with him now, but very few showed up in Republican contests. Only 6 to 12 percent of Republican primary voters were under 30. Leaving out Ron Paul voters, they were only 4 to 10 percent of Republican turnout.
Moreover, Romney carried under 30s only in Florida, Arizona, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
He may owe that last result to the wholehearted endorsement of Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan. The House Budget Committee chairman makes a powerful case that young people can’t count on promised benefits unless entitlement programs are reformed.
There is a huge tension between the personalize-your-own-world ethos of the iPod/Facebook generation and the command-and-control, mid-20th-century welfare state programs of the Obama Democrats.
The young are stuck with disproportionate insurance premiums by Obamacare and with student loan debt that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. Some hope. Some change.
Romney needs to make the case that current policy — what Obama has fallen back on — is leading to a crash in which government will fail to keep its promises.
He needs to argue that his “opportunity society” means vibrant economic growth that can provide, in ways that can’t be precisely predicted, opportunities in which young people can find work that draws on their special talents and interests.
Obama’s policies, in contrast, treat individuals as just one cog in a very large machine, designed by supposed experts who don’t seem to know what they’re doing (see Obamacare, Solyndra). Their supposedly cutting-edge technology (electric cars, passenger rail) is more than a century old.
Romney, potentially strong with the affluent, needs to figure out how to get through to the young.