For all the scrutiny of Mitt Romney’s support among conservative primary voters, there's a bright spot in his recent performances. Romney’s winning the most populated counties, almost without fail.
In fact, his performance by county closely resembles a map measuring population density. While he’s losing rural counties, Romney’s support is strong in the types of counties that helped President George W. Bush win two terms.
Take the results from Tuesday's southern primaries. In Alabama, Romney won four counties: Jefferson (Birmingham), Montgomery (Montgomery), Mobile and Baldwin (metro Mobile). In Mississippi, he performed well in the Jackson metro area (Hinds, Rankin, and Madison counties) and the Gulf Coast cities of Biloxi (Harrison County) and Gulfport (Jackson County).
Ultimately, though, Romney lost both southern primaries to Rick Santorum who performed better in the rural counties that make up the core of the GOP electorate in the South.
Still, Romney’s wins in densely populated industrial counties have undermined the coherence of Santorum’s campaign strategy. The former senator sought to expand upon Mike Huckabee’s cultural-populist coalition by bringing in northern, blue-collar workers. Santorum is not regionally limited like Huckabee, but he's failed to win over the Reagan-Democrat contingent. The counties with medium-sized industrial cities such as Davenport and Dubuque in Iowa, Flint and Saginaw in Michigan and Youngstown and Dayton in Ohio, have gone for Romney. If Santorum won the industrial areas he appeals so frequently to, there would likely be a different frontrunner right now.
Romney is doing well in the suburban and exurban counties that gave Bush the margins to win in 2004. Essential to the last victorious Republican presidential campaign was performing well in exurban counties like Warren, Clermont, and Delaware in Ohio; Dallas in Iowa; Pasco, Sarasota and St. Johns in Florida. Romney has won all of these counties, often strongly. He’s also winning more established suburban counties like Oakland in Michigan; Rockingham and Hillsborough in New Hampshire; Seminole and Volusia in Florida, which have been difficult for Republicans to win in recent years.
There are two spins on Romney’s metropolitan/rural disparity. Democrats and supporters of non-Romney candidates can interpret his performance as a sign of rural weakness. They can point to all of his fundraising advantages, all of his endorsements, all of his so-called inevitability and note that he's not connecting with large parts of the Republican electorate. In this view, less than whole-hearted enthusiasm among the conservative base could doom him in the fall.
But Romney and his supporters can make the case that he’s doing best in areas where Republicans need the most help. He can argue that rural voters who didn’t vote for him in the primaries will be there for any Republican candidate in the general. Meanwhile, Romney also can do well in urban and suburban counties.
In this view, it’s more important for the Republican nominee to run strong in the northern neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio or Manchester, New Hampshire than it is to make marginal gains in rural Western Ohio or Northern Florida. Also, holding down President Obama’s margins in Democratic base counties such as, say, Cuyahoga in Ohio and Broward in Florida is as much a part of a successful Republican strategy as strong turnout in Republican areas. Romney can make a case that he alone would be successful in doing so.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.