"No one ever gains votes in a national election by going through the presidential primaries," Bill Clinton remarked ruefully in 1992. "They're designed to chew you up and spit you out."
That maxim has never been more apt than during this Republican primary season. As Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled Super Tuesday, they dug themselves ever farther into the mire of a hard-line conservatism that is woefully out of step with America's changing electorate. The Republican Party will have a huge problem expanding beyond its base and forging a winning coalition.
Start with Hispanics — who accounted for 55 percent of population growth in the last decade — and the immigration issue. Romney, who is typically viewed as the "moderate" in the race, has been aggressively conservative in this area in an effort to outflank his more ideological opponents. He has promised to veto the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal aliens who came to the United States as minors with their parents, opposes in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, and raised a much-mocked scheme for their "self-deportation." More generally, he has consistently sneered at any sign of softness among his primary opponents on these issues, raising the specter of an increasing flood of illegal immigrants coddled by the law and provided with benefits they don't deserve.
No wonder Hispanics, despite the bad economy and concerns about the level of deportations on President Barack Obama's watch, are supporting the president at levels above those he received in 2008, when 67 percent voted for him, compared with 31 percent for John McCain. Indeed, a just-released Fox News poll — not usually considered a Democrat-friendly source — has Obama garnering 70 percent of the Latino vote, compared with just 14 percent for his closest Republican opponent, an incredible 5-1 ratio.
Given Obama's expected high support from African-American voters, this suggests that the president could certainly match his 80 percent overall support from minority voters in 2008. If that comes true, he has huge leeway to lose white votes. Amazingly, he could approach the levels at which congressional Democrats lost the white working class (30 points) and white college graduates (19 points) in the wipeout 2010 midterm election and still win the popular vote.
That's not a high bar, and right now it looks like Obama will clear it with ease. In fact, it looks like the president could approach, and perhaps exceed, his 2008 performance among these voters.
Part of the reason for this is the virulent strand of social conservatism, on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to abortion to contraception, on display in the Republican primaries. The differences among the Republican candidates, with the sole exception of Ron Paul, are minor — and well to the right of the American public.
The latest manifestation is the candidates' uniform backing for the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed any employer to opt out of providing birth control coverage for "moral" reasons. That has been accompanied, of course, by the embarrassing spectacle of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh denouncing a Georgetown University law student as a "slut" for testifying in favor of birth control coverage.
This hasn't gone over well with voters, especially white, college-educated voters, who tend to be relatively liberal on these issues. And it may be one reason that Romney's appeal among these voters — despite his so-called moderate views — may be evaporating. Recent polls show him running at about where McCain did with this group in the 2008 presidential election (a modest 4-point margin) and sometimes worse.
Even more terrifying for the Republican Party, Romney appears incapable of capturing the large margins among white working-class voters that Republican candidates need to win a general election. In a just-released NBC poll, Romney's margin among these voters was a mere 5 points, far less than McCain's 18-point margin in 2008 and less still than the 25 points or more Romney probably would need in order to win, given the United States' shifting demographics.
Romney's wealth and general cluelessness about ordinary workers' lives — his latest gaffes include saying that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs" and admitting that though he does not follow NASCAR, he has "some great friends who are NASCAR team owners" — may make him a particularly poor standard-bearer for this demographic. The Republican candidates, however, also all subscribe to a range of positions — opposition to the auto-industry bailout, opposition to raising taxes on the rich, support for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's unpopular Medicare "reform" plan, and support for attacks on collective bargaining — that do not endear them to these voters. Again, the primary process has brought these positions forcefully to voters' attention.
All this — combined, of course, with the improving economy — spells big trouble for the Republican nominee, no matter who he is. That doesn't mean the candidate who gets the nomination is doomed to lose, but it does mean that candidate is likely to pay a significant price for the Republican Party's refusal to compromise its ideology in the face of a changing electorate.
In a sufficiently bad economy, perhaps that price wouldn't have mattered. One suspects that relying on a stagnant economy was always Plan A for the Republicans, especially Romney. But now, with the economy on the upswing, Plan A doesn't look so good. And Plan B? If there ever was one, the Republican primary process has killed it off.
*Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and editor of America's New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West. © The Washington Post 2012