DORAVILLE, Ga. - In state after state, exit polling has shown a clear pattern in the Republican presidential primary: Mitt Romney performs worst among low-income whites and those without college degrees, groups who form a core part of the Republican base.
Super Tuesday’s biggest prize, Ohio, may prove his toughest test yet, as Rick Santorum leans heavily on his background as a “kid from a steel town’’ in an all-out bid for the support of working-class voters in that Rust Belt state. White working-class voters - those without a college degree - may account for half of all voters in Ohio’s primary, according to Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Working-class whites could also play a significant role in Tennessee, another Super Tuesday battleground, as well as Georgia, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. Whether Romney, the wealthy son of a Michigan governor and Detroit auto executive, can win over these voters may determine his success on Tuesday and in November, should he emerge as the Republican nominee.
Teixeira said that, with the rapid growth over the last four years of minority groups who tend to vote Democratic, white working-class voters have become an ever-more essential part of the Republican coalition. In 2008, John McCain won the white-working class vote by 18 percentage points, he said. If Republicans are going to win in November, they will have to increase that margin to 23 to 25 points, Teixeira said.
“In a general election, Romney will have to run up a landslide margin among white working-class voters, a demographic that so far he hasn’t shown any signs he’s appealing to,’’ said Teixeira, whose organization works closely with Democrats. “So therefore, it’s not only a challenge, it could be his biggest challenge.’’
Data from the primaries show Romney has struggled to win blue-collar support. In South Carolina, for example, Newt Gingrich, the winner there, beat Romney by 19 points among voters without college degrees. In Michigan, Santorum, even though he lost, beat Romney by 2 points among voters without college degrees.
Recent Ohio polls indicate the pattern playing out again. Santorum, a former senator from neighboring Pennsylvania, leads among those who earn between $20,000 and $75,000 annually, while Romney is the favorite among higher-income voters.
At a Chick-fil-A in a shopping plaza in Doraville, on the outskirts of Atlanta, interviews with the lunchtime crowd revealed some of the reasons the former Massachusetts governor struggles to connect with workaday voters.
“I don’t think he can relate to the normal, everyday guy,’’ said Joe Bell, a 60-year-old salesman for a relocation company outside Atlanta, who was reading USA Today and enjoying a chicken sandwich. “It’s not so much just that he’s wealthy, it’s just some of the things that he says off the cuff, like his wife drives two or three Cadillacs. Stuff like that. It’s like, ‘what?’ ’’
A few tables away, Robert Bryant, a 42-year-old construction worker, echoed the sentiment.
“He’s had stumbles - the wife with the two Cadillacs, and they asked him about NASCAR the other day, and he said ‘I don’t know much about NASCAR, but I know a bunch of the owners,’ ’’ said Bryant, who plans to vote for Gingrich. “He needs to quit saying stuff like that, because it makes people mad.’’
But Romney’s wealth and occasionally awkward statements are not the only factors creating some distance between him and blue-collar voters. Ann Wohlwend, a 69-year-old Chick-fil-A employee, said she is more concerned about Romney’s history of shifting positions “whichever way the wind blows.’’
“He’s more concerned with his image, but that has nothing do with his wealth, I think that’s his character,’’ said Wohlwend, a Gingrich supporter. “He’s too much of a politician.’’
Still, if it came down to Obama and Romney, Bell, Bryant, and Wohlwend all said they would vote for Romney.
“Absolutely,’’ Bryant said. Dismissing Romney’s struggles with working-class voters, he said: “At the end of the day, do I think that’s going to make him a bad president? No.’’
Sensing an opportunity to win back some working-class support, Obama is trying to use his bailout of the auto industry to cast himself as a champion of the industrial Midwest. In a fiery speech to the United Auto Workers on Tuesday, he reminded the audience that Romney opposed the bailout.
“Some politicians even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt!’ ’’ Obama declared, as the crowd booed.
The UAW is trying to amplify the effort by turning out voters in Midwest battleground states in November and, yesterday, by gathering outside Romney’s headquarters in Boston to decry his stance on the auto bailout.
Santorum makes his own appeals to working-class voters by reminding voters everywhere that he is the grandson of a coal miner.
He also called Obama a “snob’’ for wanting all Americans to go to college.
Romney, with his dual law and business degrees from Harvard, has had a harder time trying to appeal to working-class voters, said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire, who was an adviser to McCain in 2008.
“In 2008, I was on the other side, so we used to enjoy this contrast,’’ he said. “A lot of it is the words you use, and how you frame the arguments.’’
Working-class voters who don’t know Romney often think, “Well, this is a very wealthy, very well-educated guy, he doesn’t understand my problems,’ ’’ Duprey said. “I think that’s why you’ve seen some of that dropoff with those demographics.’’
But, he said, Romney is doing a better job of appealing to lower-income voters than he did in 2008, and his advisers are trying to figure out ways to increase his appeal.
“I’m sure they will look at the polling data, and say ‘We need to do a better job of explaining in very clear language why what Governor Romney proposes is better for that $14-an-hour worker than what President Obama proposes,’ ’’ Duprey said.
Yesterday, Romney sought to do just that. At a campaign stop, in Bellevue, Wash., he recalled meeting Norm Byrne, the owner of Byrne Electrical Specialists in Rockford, Mich.
“This guy didn’t get to go to college, he has no degree in engineering,’’ Romney said, according to CBS News. “The reason I know that is, I asked him, ‘Where did you get your engineering degree?’ He said, ‘I don’t have one.’ I said, ‘Where did you go to college?’ He said, ‘I didn’t go to college.’ ’’
Romney said he had asked Byrne about his education because he was amazed at the more than 100 patents displayed on the wall of his factory.
“This guy’s brilliant, and has many, many people, dozens, scores of people, who work for him, because of his innovativeness and creativeness,’’ Romney said. “It’s just an American phenomenon.’’Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.