PJ Media

Why Santorum Voters Wouldn't Become Gingrich Voters

Conventional wisdom has been that Rick Santorum’s continued presence in the presidential race is taking votes away from Newt Gingrich.  As the Florida primary vote approached, Professor William A. Jacobson warned that “a vote for Santorum is still a vote for Romney.”

However Rush Limbaugh cast doubt on the theory, saying that there was a reason Santorum voters were not for Gingrich and that he suspected Santorum voters would break more towards Romney if Santorum were not in the race.

To believe the polls, the truth lies somewhere in between, with data suggesting that Santorum voters wouldn’t break overwhelmingly either way:

  • The NBC-Marist poll taken right before the Florida primary showed Romney leading Gingrich by fifteen points. They asked how voters would vote in a straight Romney-Gingrich race. In a two-man race, Romney’s lead became sixteen points.
  • Public Polling polled Missouri voters and found in a four-way caucus race, Gingrich led 30% to 28% for Santorum and 24% for Romney. In a two-way Gingrich-Romney race, Gingrich held a scant 43-42% lead, while in a Santorum-Romney race, Santorum led 50-37%.
  • In Ohio, PPP found a similar phenomenon. Gingrich led Romney and Santorum 26-25-22%. In a two-man race, Gingrich only led Romney by a 42-39% margin, while Santorum would lead Romney 45-38%.
  • While not a scientific poll, the blog Hot Air’s reader survey gave a picture of how supporters of each candidate would react to different scenarios. Gingrich held a 45-33% lead over Romney in the most recent site survey with Santorum drawing 22% of the vote. If participants were restricted to Gingrich and Romney, the margin for Gingrich would be 57-43%, but in a two-man race, Santorum beats Romney 61-39%.

All four polls illustrate the point that Santorum voters aren’t all going to break for Gingrich, and three of the examples suggest that Santorum would do a better job of picking up Gingrich supporters than vice versa. Is this polling noise or is there a reason for this trend?

The answer is found in the entrance and exit polls. While often cited for evidence of how people voted according to identity politics, the exit polls also look at the most important candidate quality voters used in making their decision. While the phrase “values voters” has been in vogue since 2004, the voters that have hurt Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the presidency could be known as “character voters.”

In each state voting thus far, between 17 and 25% of the voters have listed “strong moral character” as the most important candidate quality they consider in their vote. Among these voters, Gingrich does poorly, capturing between two and eight percent.  In Florida, this was the most important factor for 17% of voters. Among this group, Romney beat Gingrich 47-8%. Romney’s 39% margin over Gingrich among character voters accounted for half of his 14-point margin in Florida.

A large chunk of Santorum voters are also moral character voters. Santorum finished second in Florida with 27% of character voters and won character voters in South Carolina and Iowa. Santorum character voters made up a third of his Florida vote and would have been extremely unlikely to go to Gingrich had Santorum dropped out. Gingrich certainly would have gained large chunks of Santorum support from those who were looking for a true conservative or who thought Senator Santorum had the right experience to be president, but the character voters would have made a Santorum exit a wash, or pretty close to it as far as Gingrich is concerned.

On the other hand, a larger percentage of Gingrich second-choice voters would go to Santorum because there’s not a large concentration of Gingrich supporters whose votes are based on a factor that works so decidedly against Santorum.

The early entrance and exit poll results suggest that this character gap may be the most insurmountable challenge for the Gingrich campaign. In each state, Gingrich has had at least 15% of voters immediately out of reach for him. These voters would have been accessible to another conservative candidate without Gingrich’s baggage. In South Carolina, Gingrich overcame getting only 6% of character voters by winning 51% of those who were concerned about nominating a candidate who could beat President Obama, 45% of those who wanted to nominate a candidate with the right experience, and 38% of those who wanted a true conservative. The performance was equivalent to hitting three home runs in a single baseball game and will be very hard for Gingrich to repeat outside of his home state of Georgia on Super Tuesday.

Gingrich supporters have argued that Gingrich’s personal life and character should not be an issue for voters. However, character voters have begged to differ. With the president charged not only with solving America’s fiscal crisis, but with the awesome responsibilities of being commander in chief in a dangerous world, character and trustworthiness are on the minds of many Republican voters. The failure of Mr. Gingrich and his supporters to realize this may well have doomed his campaign.

Also read Bryan Preston at the Tatler on why Romney is attacking Santorum.