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From Different Angles: Romney and the Primary Vote

Note: This article is cross-posted from Rhodes Cook’s political blog.

One of Mitt Romney’s basic arguments these days is that he is well ahead of his Republican presidential rivals in both the number of delegates and popular votes won. That is true. But if he goes on to win his party’s nomination, it is likely to be with the lowest share of the nationwide GOP primary vote since the era of the primary-dominated nominating process began in the 1970s.

Since then, only one Republican has been nominated that received less than a majority of his party’s overall primary ballots. That was John McCain in 2008, who drew 47%. Thus far in 2012, Romney has collected 38% of the 8.8 million primary votes cast (and 33% of the much smaller universe of 435,000 or so caucus votes).

Certainly, delegates are the coin of the realm when it comes to presidential nominating politics. But a strong primary vote can demonstrate the basic vote-getting appeal of the front-runner as well as his ability to rally the broad elements of his party in fairly short order.

That, so far, Romney has not done. In actual primary votes, he has 3.4 million – 1.1 million votes more than his nearest rival, Rick Santorum, who has 2.3 million. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul follow with 2.0 million and nearly 900,000 primary votes, respectively. Stop there and the numbers look pretty good for Romney.

But change the vantage point and the Romney vote total looks a lot less imposing. The combined vote for the two more conservative entries, Santorum and Gingrich, is 4.3 million, which represents nearly half of all Republican primary ballots cast. Go a step further and add together all the “non-Romney” primary votes and they total 5.4 million, fully 2 million more than those cast for the GOP front-runner.

An additional fact to note is that Romney’s share of the vote has steadily declined as the primaries have unfolded. He drew 41% in the six primaries held before Super Tuesday (March 6), 38% in the seven primaries that took place on Super Tuesday, and 30% in the two Deep South primaries in Alabama and Mississippi) held since then.

Romney’s 38% share of the overall primary vote could begin to inch upward should the sense of inevitability about his nomination finally gain traction, or should a rival or two quit the race.

It is also true that in historical terms winning less than a majority of the primary vote in the spring does not rule out winning the general election in the fall. Besides McCain, there have been four Democrats since 1976 who have captured their party’s nomination with less than 50% of the Democratic primary vote – Jimmy Carter in 1976 (39% in the primaries), Walter Mondale in 1984 (38%), Michael Dukakis in 1988 (43%), and Barack Obama in 2008 (47%).

Two of the four, Carter and Obama, went on to win the White House that November. They were aided by a pair of basic factors. In neither 1976 nor 2008 did the primaries prove divisive for the Democrats, and in each election the party had a strong wind at their back. In contrast, Mondale and Dukakis could never generate much enthusiasm for their candidacies and the nature of the year in which each ran left them with no conspicuous tailwind to offset the absence of passion.

Which direction, if any, the wind will be blowing in 2012 remains to be seen. Yet it behooves Romney to run as well as he possibly can in the remaining primaries, not just to amass the needed number of delegates, but to show those doubters both inside and outside the Republican Party that he is not as weak a candidate as the current primary vote totals indicate that he might be.