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For Romney, Much Has Changed Since '08 -- Including the Electorate

For Romney, Much Has Changed Since '08 -- Including the Electorate

By Carl M. Cannon - February 21, 2012


DENVER -- At his party's 2010 nominating convention, Richard Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado GOP, asked the 5,000 delegates and alternates to stand up if they were attending their first such assembly. Approximately 40 percent of those in the crowd rose to their feet.

To Wadhams and other GOP leaders in the state, this infusion of new blood in their party instilled optimism about the midterm elections and inspired hopes of handing Democrats a defeat in the state where Barack Obama’s coronation was held in 2008.

But the advent of fresh voters is a phenomenon that cuts two ways, and not always predictably. At the outset of the 2012 campaign, Republicans loyal to Mitt Romney figured Colorado was strong territory for them. Romney had easily bested John McCain in the GOP primary here four years earlier. Surely, he could do it again, they thought, and parlay that expected victory -- and one in Minnesota -- into a Feb. 28 knockout punch in Arizona and Michigan.

It didn’t work out that way. Romney was outflanked by Rick Santorum in Colorado and Minnesota, another caucus state he carried in 2008. And now, Romney is locked in a tight battle with Santorum not only in Arizona but in Michigan, where he was born and raised.

One moral of the story is that running for political office is a comparative endeavor. Four years ago, Republican primary voters in Colorado who deemed McCain insufficiently conservative broke for Romney, who was running to the right. He’s doing so again, but the Mitt Romney of 2012 no longer gets to choose his own role in the GOP passion play. He doesn’t even get to play himself: This time, he’s been cast as McCain, with Santorum in Romney’s previous role.

The other problem for Romney is that the electorate is not static. That’s the true lesson of Dick Wadhams’ head count of first-time attendees at the GOP’s 2010 caucus: It’s not precisely the same group of people heading to the polls this time.

“Romney was certainly the conservative alternative to McCain in 2008 and this year Santorum was the conservative challenger,” noted Wadhams. “Also, the caucus constituency was much different in 2012 from 2008. The Tea Party movement emerged in 2009 and 2010, so a large swath of the 2012 caucus attendees were not around when Romney won with 60 percent in 2008. And turnout was down in counties Romney won, such as Jefferson, Arapahoe and other metro Denver counties.”

This phenomenon is not limited to Romney -- or to the Republicans.

For starters, a new crop of young people, most of whom were in high school four years ago, are eligible to vote this year. This group is 8 million strong nationally. In addition, an estimated 3 million foreign-born voters have been granted U.S. citizenship since 2008. These are vast pools of potential voters, but as Romney learned in Colorado, even those who have been voting for decades can be fickle friends.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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