In Republican voting so far this year, it has been evident that Mitt Romney can draw votes in metropolitan areas with their large numbers of well-off, well educated voters. But the Republican front-runner has struggled mightily in many states to win votes in rural areas and small towns, Main Street America if you will.
The dynamic was first apparent with Romney’s virtual tie with Rick Santorum in Iowa. Santorum swept nearly two-thirds of the 99 counties, but Romney carried the five leading counties (in terms of the size of the Republican caucus vote).
There was a similar split this past week in Michigan, as Santorum carried nearly two-thirds of the state’s 83 counties. But Romney won big in the vote-rich Detroit area. He swept Wayne County (which includes the city of Detroit) and its two major suburban counties (Macomb and Oakland) by a combined margin of nearly 50,000 votes in a primary that Romney won statewide by barely 30,000.
In between the Republican balloting in Iowa and Michigan, Romney carried the two leading counties in New Hampshire, Hillsborough (Manchester) and Rockingham (Portsmouth). He won the two leading counties in Nevada, Clark (Las Vegas) and Washoe (Reno). He took the second leading county in South Carolina (Charleston), even though he was crushed by Newt Gingrich in the statewide balloting. And Romney swept 19 of the 20 leading counties in Florida (again measured by the volume of the GOP primary vote).
Florida by far is the most populous state to have voted in the Republican presidential nominating campaign thus far and Romney’s victory there was most impressive. He carried virtually every county of note in south, central and north Florida, with the exception of Escambia County (Pensacola) in the western tip of the panhandle. It went for Gingrich. But underscoring the metro-rural divide in the voting, Gingrich carried one more county in Florida than Romney, even though the latter won a nearly quarter-million vote landslide.
Yet just one week after Romney showed his vote-getting ability in Florida’s largest population centers, he hit his nadir Feb. 7 in the conservative rural heartland. Not only did he lose all three events to Santorum that day, but in terms of counties won, he went zero for Minnesota and zero for Missouri.
For those interested in exact numbers, there are 114 counties in Missouri plus two cities (St. Louis and Kansas City), while there are 87 counties in Minnesota. Add the two together and that is more than 200 counties in two heartland states where Romney failed to win a single county in Republican voting.
To be sure, there have been states where Romney has won virtually everything in sight, such as New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona. But more often than not, the results so far have shown that the 2012 version of Mitt Romney is not an easy sell to conservative small town voters - long the base of the Republican Party.
If Romney is the party’s nominee this fall, it is unlikely that he would lose any GOP votes along “Main Street” to Barack Obama. But he could lose some to a conservative third party alternative, if there is one. Or even more likely, he could lose them to apathy.