By choosing Mitt Romney over Rick Santorum, Republican voters have chosen electability over ideology -- supposedly an appeal to swing voters over an appeal to the base.
But swing voters come in many shapes and sizes, and so, in choosing Romney over Santorum, Republicans have also chosen White Bread over Blue Collar.
When media types and political professionals living in D.C. and New York think of swing voters, we tend to think only of upper-middle-class suburban bankers whose wives might give money to Planned Parenthood, and where the couple has at least three degrees between them, Democratic politician-turned-political scientist Jeff Smith explained to me over lunch Monday. We forget, Smith said, about the churchgoing, factory-working voters where neither spouse went to college -- the Reagan Democrats.
These are stereotypes, but they approximate groups of voters found in many states. And both groups have been in flux recently -- moving in opposite directions.
Republicans have been picking up the blue-collar demographic off and on, as evidenced by solid gains in North Dakota, South Dakota and Ohio, and 2010 congressional pickups in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Democrats, meanwhile, have spent the last two decades slowly taking over suburbia. Almost all of New England has turned blue. Montgomery counties in Maryland and Pennsylvania have become more and more Democratic, as have Fairfax and Arlington in Virginia, Westchester County and Long Island in New York, and DuPage County in Illinois. Look at a decent-size American city above the Mason-Dixon Line, move your eyes over to a predominantly white, close-in suburb with high median household income, and you've probably found a Democratic boomtown.
So here's the question: In choosing Romney, are Republicans making a prudent play to win back undecided college-educated, upper-middle-class, white suburbanites who tend to be fairly fiscally conservative and socially moderate? Or are they living in the past, and trying in vain to hold on to a demographic they've already lost?
There's some evidence Republicans have begun to bounce back in suburbia. Bob McDonnell won Fairfax County in 2009, and Ohio Republican Rob Portman easily won the suburban Cleveland counties in his Senate race. Republicans picked up two suburban Philadelphia congressional districts and gained one outside of Chicago while holding a tough open seat on the North Shore.
On the other hand, there's reason to suspect the GOP suburban slide continues, and that any 2010 Republican improvements in the 'burbs were weak ripples off the nationwide Republican surge.
For instance, while Bob Ehrlich dropped nearly 11 percent statewide from 2006 to his rematch in 2010, he dropped more than 18 percent in Montgomery County.
In New Jersey, Chris Christie in 2009 did 4.9 percent worse in Bergen County than statewide. Compare that with 2005, when the GOP gubernatorial nominee did only 3.6 percent worse in Bergen than statewide. Go back one more election, and Bergen was more Republican than the state average.
Every election is different, and so is every state. You can't draw broad conclusions from a small sample. In some places, the suburban vote has held steady -- Denver's suburban districts have roughly tracked the statewide vote steadily over the last eight years.
Aside from the question of how many suburban votes are winnable, there's the question of how important they are. The blue-collar swing voters -- the Reagan Democrats -- occupy key Electoral College states in the Midwest like Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. But Denver's and Cleveland's tonier suburbs will matter this fall, as will Florida, Virginia, and White Bread Romney-friendly cities like Charlotte, N.C.
Because the decision is mostly made -- Romney's delegate lead is nearly insurmountable -- the most relevant question might be whether Romney can win over Santorum's swing voters. It will be tough, because Romney is an awkward, formerly pro-choice, millionaire banker who got rich buying and selling companies, and who makes $10,000 bets on a whim.
The two provided a telling contrast on the night they tied for first in the Iowa caucuses. Both Romney and Santorum that night critiqued Obama's fondness for liberal welfare and redistribution programs. Romney charged that Obama "wants to make us an entitlement society where government takes from some to give to others." Santorum critiqued the same policies, but for "increasing dependency."
Many middle-class Americans have become unwitting and unhappy clients of the welfare state, more so as the government grows. Santorum's message of economic liberty appealed to them. Romney's derided them. That's got to change if Romney wants Santorum's swing voters.
Republicans have chosen the candidate of the suburbs. They'll lose if he doesn't learn how to speak outside the gates of the country club.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.