Mitt Romney’s razor-thin victory in Ohio’s presidential primary underscores his struggle to build a broad coalition of Republican voters and overcome doubts among the party’s base about his candidacy.
Romney, a onetime Massachusetts governor, beat former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point, losing 69 of the 88 counties in Ohio, a state that’s crucial to Republican hopes of defeating President Barack Obama. He pulled out a statewide victory only by winning big in population centers such as Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, that tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections.
Romney ran poorly among voters who described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, according to an exit poll of 2,728 Republican voters. He lost to Santorum by 17 points among evangelicals, many of them motivated by opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Their turnout in 2004 in Ohio helped President George W. Bush win re-election.
Exit polls show Romney won the Catholic vote, and the difference in the race may have been the Catholics in Ohio’s three largest urban counties, said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and American politics.
Still, Romney fell short with middle-income Republicans, losing to Santorum by 8 percentage points among voters who reported a family income of less than $100,000 per year.
Making a Connection
While many middle-income and evangelical conservatives may prefer Romney to Obama in the general election, Romney must work to get their votes, said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio.
“He just can’t seem to seal the deal with those voters, and I think that could be a problem,” Smith said. “He just doesn’t seem to be able to make that connection to regular people.”
Though Romney failed to win a majority of the vote in any Ohio county, he won the state by earning pluralities in populous areas that offset his poor showing in lightly populated rural counties.
He was ahead by 16,029 votes in Cuyahoga County, more than his statewide margin of 10,508, according to complete yet unofficial results from the county. In Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, Romney led by 15,653 votes and by more than 4,405 in Franklin County, which takes in the state capital of Columbus, according to the unofficial tallies. These counties voted for Obama in the 2008 election.
Must Win Ohio
Romney prevailed in Butler and Warren Counties, which are fast-growing suburbs of Cincinnati, and in Delaware County, a suburb of Columbus that has the state’s highest median household income.
No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio.
Santorum did well in rural counties in the northwestern part of the state and in a swath of southeastern Ohio not far from his home state of Pennsylvania. He took a statewide high of 59 percent in Paulding County, which sits on Ohio’s border with Indiana, and got 58 percent in Jefferson County in eastern Ohio. Jefferson County includes Steubenville, where Santorum addressed supporters last night before the final tally was announced.
Even with his victory, it wasn’t a good night for Romney because the Ohio race exposed his weakness among middle-class and working-class voters, said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Santorum supporter. DeWine said he thinks Santorum would have won Ohio had former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich not been on the ballot.
“My belief that Santorum has the best chance to appeal to average Ohioans I think was vindicated last night,” DeWine said in a telephone interview. “Romney appeals to a limited number of people.”
Romney ran strong among well-educated, upper-income voters, who see him as the strongest opponent for Obama, according to the exit poll. These groups propelled him to wins in most early-voting states, including New Hampshire and Florida in January and in Michigan last week.
In Ohio, 42 percent of Republicans said defeating Obama was the most important quality in a candidate, according to the exit poll. Romney won 52 percent of those voters.
Romney will attract voters in the general election that he didn’t win yesterday if he’s the nominee, said Curt Steiner, a Columbus Republican consultant and Romney supporter who was chief of staff for former Ohio Governor George Voinovich.
They’ll Come Around
“It’s going to be a close race in the fall, and just because a lot of conservative voters chose to vote for somebody other than Romney doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him in the fall,” Steiner said in a telephone interview. “They will.”
Even so, just 22 percent of Ohio Republicans said Romney best understands the problems of average Americans, the exit poll showed. That compares with the 34 percent who said the same of Santorum, 19 percent for Gingrich and 15 percent for Representative Ron Paul of Texas.
Romney “has a problem striking a chord with working-class and middle, middle-class voters,” Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in a telephone interview. “That’s something that he clearly for November, if he’s the nominee, will need to improve on.”