As expected, Mitt Romney swept five Republican primary elections Tuesday night, but even if the winner is no surprise, his vote totals can still tell us something.
The Republican establishment has been sending mixed messages about how ready it is to embrace Romney as the party's presidential nominee, and last night, voters sent mixed messages, too. The University of Minnesota's Eric Ostermeier explains that Romney won by the smallest percentage of any Republican nominee whose main competition had dropped out in the last 40 years. Every other eventual nominee since 1972 has gotten more than 60 percent in every contest since the opposition dropped out, except Romney. He got 58 percent in Pennsylvania and 56 percent in Delaware. But if you rank the candidates by their opposition-less vote totals, a low lowest score doesn't appear to correlate with failure in the general election.
- 1996: Bob Dole wins 61.3 percent in Montana. Wins zero terms in the White House.
- 2000: George W. Bush wins 63.3 percent in Utah. Wins two terms.
- 1980: Ronald Reagan gets 63.8 percent in New Mexico. Wins two terms.
- 1988: George H.W. Bush gets 68 percent in Nebraska. Wins one term.
- 2008: John McCain wins 69.7 percent in Idaho. Wins zero terms.
"While Romney avoided the embarrassment of winning with a mere plurality, never has a presumptive nominee won a primary contest with such a low level of support at this stage of the race with his chief challenger no longer actively campaigning," Ostermeier says. But why should the vote totals matter in contests that don't? National Journal's Beth Reinhard explained before the elections that "there’s a group of hardcore voters who show up even when the presidential primary has been settled." These are called "expressive voters" by George Mason University associate professor Michael McDonald, and Reinhard reported that these voters might express dissatisfaction with Romney by staying home. In the Florida primary in January, for example, the fewer people voted in the counties that backed Romney than did in the 2008 primary.