What Santorum Gets Wrong About the GOP and Urban Voters

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The insurgent Republican bashes Mitt Romney for relying on cities. But anything else is a recipe for GOP suicide.

Coming off a rough weekend in Puerto Rico, and with another loss likely coming Tuesday in Illinois, Rick Santorum is on the offensive anew against Mitt Romney. Some of it is standard grade mudslinging, if a remarkably strident version -- he said on CBS Monday morning that Romney "has no core." But here's another, more substantive critique, which he delivered in rural Illinois:

"Think about it, look at the map of the United States. Blue being the Democrats, red being the Republicans -- it's almost all red," Mr. Santorum on Saturday evening. "Except around the big cities. And yet when you look at the economic plan that Republicans put forward, it's all about tax breaks for higher-income individuals who live in those blue areas mostly...."

"And if you look at where my Republican opponent has won, it's always in and around the cities," he said, in what seemed a clear reference to Mr. Romney, though he did not name him.

"It almost looks like a Republican versus a Democrat, when you look at these states," Mr. Santorum said. "And he's winning the areas the Democrats win, and I win the areas the Republicans win."

"Does that tell you something, maybe?" he said, to applause.

It's true that cities have saved Romney. The best example is Super Tuesday night in Ohio, where Santorum seemed to have a huge advantage as the results rolled in. But smart analysts hesitated to declare Santorum the victor, pointing to the areas around Cincinnati and Cleveland, where counts were slower. When the final tally arrived, Romney had won.

The divide is stark. In early February, I posted a chart by Ken Gross that showed the GOP primary results broken down by county. Here's the newest version (N.B.: Arizona was a winner-take-all primary, accounting for the wash of purple ink in that corner of the map.):

grosscounties.jpg

Ken Gross / Rustbelt Cartography

So Santorum is right about that, although it's important to note that a lot of Romney's edge is suburban, not strictly from the city: inner cities remain heavily Democratic. But what about the policies? In fact, Santorum arguably does more for the wealthy urbanites he's pretending to disdain. Both men would cut taxes on high earners on Central Park West. Let's take the "tax breaks for higher-income individuals" he decries. Comparing the effective tax rates under their plans, Santorum would actually cut rates farther than Romney, according to the Tax Policy Center. True, Santorum would also lower tax rates farther for the less well-off, and he would increase the deduction for families with many children, like his own. But as fertility rates fall, rural areas are actually seeing a faster drop than most urban areas. What's more, Santorum's plan would reduce revenues sharply. That would likely lead to reductions in programs that benefit the poor, in both rural and urban areas.

But for Santorum, it's not just about the tax rates. It's the principle of the thing: Republicans ought to be the party of the heartland. That's a stirring but suicidal slogan. The rural population of the U.S. has remained more or less between 55,000,000 and 60,000,000 for decades. At the same time, the urban population has increased significantly, accounting for most of the nation's tens of millions in population growth. This chart from the Census is essentially an inversion of the county-by-county vote chart above:

popchange.census.jpg

Census

There's been a vigorous debate over Republican demographics over the next decade, with liberals like Jonathan Chait arguing that population trends will spell doom going forward if the GOP doesn't change its policies to appeal to different voters. Many conservatives, even while rejecting all or part of Chait's analysis, have voiced concern about matters like the Hispanic vote. If they want to continue winning elections, Republicans have serious questions about demographics and the future to chew over. Whether or not it's important to appeal to non-rural voters, however, is not a serious question.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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