The Disaffected Voters Romney Should Be Worried About

Republicans, like Democrats, come in many flavors: social conservatives, libertarians, neo-cons, moderates, big-business conservatives, evangelicals, independents, and so on. But what do these labels mean when people step into the voting booth?

There are many ways you can carve up the American public into ideological categories, but my favorite comes from the Pew Research Center on People & the Press. Pew’s political typology has been evolving since 1987 and currently breaks the American electorate into nine groups. What’s great about Pew’s project, compared to other attempts to categorize voters, is that it is actually based on data. To create their most recent typology, researchers surveyed over 3,000 individuals about their political beliefs and then used a statistical technique known as cluster analysis to identify naturally occurring groupings in the American population. This process creates coherent political categories that reflect what we see in the real world (and often in media coverage), but are backed up by actual data. You can see where you fit in Pew’s typology by taking a quick quiz. I won’t share my result, but I’d say they placed me pretty accurately.

A recent piece by Brookings Institution scholar William Galston shows how Pew’s political typology can help us understand the current presidential election. Three key Republican constituencies showed clear political preferences in Iowa: Staunch Conservatives supported Santorum, Main Street Republicans went for Romney, and, of course, Libertarians voted for Paul. In New Hampshire, Main Street Republicans supported Romney and Huntsman and Libertarians again went for Paul, while the lack of Staunch Conservatives in the state accounted for Santorum’s relatively poor showing.

The wild card in all this, according to Galston, is a fourth group, the Disaffecteds. These are social conservatives who favor smaller government but also have a populist streak, which means they are critical of big business and supportive of social welfare programs. The Disaffecteds are mainly lower class whites with limited education and employment prospects who feel out of place in our rapidly evolving economy. The Republican-leaning members of this group have shown support for Santorum, Palin, and Huckabee in the past and, as Galston writes, “They are not the kinds of people who tend to identify with the Mitt Romneys of this world.”

Galston doesn’t speculate on what this means for the general election, but I think it clearly indicates trouble for Romney, who many are predicting will be the Republican nominee. The Disaffecteds aren’t Republican loyals, they’re mostly independents, and they are not very supportive of Romney. Despite their social conservative values and small government ethos, populist appeals by Obama might win them over, especially if the economy is recovering but still shaky. Disaffecteds make up 11% of voters and, given how uncertain their loyalties might be in a Romney/Obama contest, they should certainly be of concern to both candidates.

Conservative Republicans’ Tragic Failure To Stick With a Candidate
William Galston // Brookings Institution // January 5th, 2012

Beyond Red vs. Blue: 2011 Pew Research Political Typology
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press // May 4th, 2011

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