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News analysis: Mitt Romney narrowly survives 'Baptist and bootlegger' coalition in Michigan

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 10:44 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his election watch party after winning the Michigan primary in Novi, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.

Associated Press

News analysis

Rick Santorum lost Michigan Tuesday, but the loss may be more troubling than the raw numbers suggest. By openly appealing to Democrats in an already unsettled primary fight, Santorum created a classic Baptist and bootlegger coalition.

In the end, it may backfire. And it may already have backfired Tuesday, as exit polls showed late-breaking voters in Michigan tilted for Romney.

Baptists and bootleggers

"Baptists and bootleggers" is an economic theory that evokes Prohibition era politics, where highly moralistic citizens outlaw legal alcohol sales while the bootleggers who profit from their exuberance egg them on.

The Baptists in Santorum's coalition are apparent in the exit polls. They may not be Baptists, but they are evangelicals, who made up 39 percent of the vote. Twenty-four percent of all voters said a candidate's religion mattered "a great deal" to them. Santorum won 63 percent of that vote. Romney won every other segment on this question, even winning by 7 points among those who said a candidate's beliefs mattered "somewhat."

The bootleggers for Santorum entered through the open primary, which allowed Michigan voters from one party to help nominate the other party's nominee. It doesn't take an especially cynical nature to see the danger in such a scheme.

On the eve of the Michigan primary leftist filmmaker Michael Moore and Markos Moulitsas of the liberal blog Daily Kos loudly endorsed Rick Santorum, the darling of the Religious Right. Santorum seconded their appeal on Monday with a robocall directly appealing to Democrat voters.

Reagan Democrats?

And it worked. Exit polls showed that 9 percent of voters in the GOP primary were Democrats, and they flocked to Santorum over Romney by 53 percent to 18 percent. Santorum's campaign explained the strategy in terms that might possibly be persuasive. The idea was to attract Reagan Democrats, a core of the Reagan coalition that produced two landslide elections in the 1980s.

Reagan Democrats were blue collar but socially conservative, union workers from rustbelt states, highly patriotic but economic protectionists, and maybe a little xenophobic. They followed NASCAR and didn't go to college. An attempt to cultivate this vote in November could pay dividends. Santorum appealed to this vote over the weekend by stirring up class envy, attacking Romney for opposing the auto bailout and attacking Obama for suggesting that everyone should go to college. He called the president a "snob" and called colleges "indoctrination mills."

Romney played into this meme with some typically goofy statements over the weekend, including an appeal to auto workers by pointing out that his wife drives two Cadillacs, presumably one at a time. Over the weekend he also noted that while he doesn't follow NASCAR, some of his good friends own NASCAR teams. The expectation on Monday was that Romney's rich guy gaffes would dull his momentum. Santorum's drive for Reagan Democrats sought to exploit this wedge.

Snickering bootleggers

But on closer analysis, Santorum's 53 percent of the 9 percent Democrat vote looks less like convert Baptists and more like snickering bootleggers. The key is a U-shaped bar chart buried in the exit polls that asks whether voters favored or opposed the Tea Party. (Something is usually up when a bar chart forms a U.)

The Tea Party question is the acid test for the alleged Reagan Democrat voters. These voters would certainly be no worse than neutral on the Tea Party, which defines itself against government expansion under Obama. Few votes available to the GOP in November would be strongly opposed to the Tea Party, and any that were available would tilt toward the more centrist Romney, not Santorum.

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