Exit polls from Mitt Romney sweep show Democrats toying with GOP primary (News Analysis)

Published: Wednesday, April 4 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Republican Presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney declares victory in the Wisconsin presidential primary, Tuesday, April 3, 2012, at the Grain Exchange in Milwaukee.

Associated Press

The week leading up to Tuesday's elections was marked by landmark endorsements for presidential candidate Mitt Romney from holdouts who were waiting until the primary race was conclusively over. Among these was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who gave his endorsement in a back-handed manner and in doing so probably confirmed he does not want to be on the ticket.

But the exit polls Tuesday night confirmed that GOP voters know this primary is over and want it done. Romney won by double-digit margins in both Maryland and Wisconsin — among GOP voters that is.

Rick Santorum showed only two sparks of life last night: among white evangelicals, many of whom remain doggedly opposed to Romney, and hard-left liberal Democrats, most of whom want the fun to go on. In this respect, they are not unlike Santorum himself, who all observers now agree cannot stop Romney from winning the nomination.

The only explanation in both cases is what might be called "mayhem," defined as fun and strategic benefit derived from feigning the straight game while actually playing another game.

Liberal Democrats support Santorum in Republican primary voting to weaken the GOP by prolonging its agony and draining its resources. No mystery there.

Meanwhile, Santorum's only remaining real game is the Reagan 1976 model: scuttling the current GOP White House bid while setting himself up as the White Knight in four years time.

The key indicator that Santorum's straight game is over is his slippage with evangelicals. For the first time, Romney got a close split in this demographic in both states, losing them in Wisconsin to Santorum by just three points but actually winning them in Maryland by two points. If that trend holds, Santorum's strategy will fail in short order.

But one group still enthusiastically backs Santorum. Because Maryland does not allow Democrats to vote, they played no role there, and Romney thus waltzed to victory with a 20-point margin, 49 percent to 29 percent.

It is worth noting that Maryland independents voted in large numbers, and they favored Romney by a smaller margin than GOP voters. Since Santorum is unlikely to outpoll Romney among independents, this suggests a little mayhem here as well.

But it is in Wisconsin where the evidence is thick and even amusing. Begin with "somewhat liberals," where Santorum beat Romney by four points, 37 to 32 percent. Since no one in this demo actually would prefer a Santorum presidency, that's 3.3 that can be taken off of Santorum's 37, roughly speaking.

Twelve percent of the voters "strongly opposed the tea party." And they split for Santorum 40 percent to Romney's 20. That's a possible 4.8 of Santorum's 37.

Finally, Wisconsin has a unique exit-poll question with national significance. Gov. Scott Walker drew a firestorm of opposition from public employee unions and their supporters on the left when he and the legislature tweaked the pension system and ended collective bargaining on pension issues. Walker is now facing a recall campaign, and the issue remains a national flashpoint in the impending struggle over how to deal with insolvent state pensions.

Anyone who strongly opposes Walker is embracing the public employee/Democratic Party side of this debate, and this clearly understood local question is probably the strongest indicator of mayhem.

Fourteen percent of the voters said they "strongly disapproved" of Walker's performance as governor, and 42 percent of these favored Santorum compared to 15 percent for Romney. That suggests that 5.9 of the Santorum 37 can reasonably be viewed as mayhem.

So this is where Santorum's campaign stands on the eve of his last stand in his home state. A quickly fading evangelical advantage now offers him no better than a close split, and a rowdy crowd of hooligans on the left taunt him with their support.

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