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Low MN turnout helped Santorum, hindered Romney

The presidential campaign for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaign is doing some serious regrouping after his poor showing Tuesday in Republican contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.

Four years ago, the former Massachusetts governor won handily in Minnesota and Colorado, but the spoils this time around went to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, considered by many, the most conservative remaining GOP presidential candidate.

To understand why Minnesota Republicans rejected Romney in Tuesday’s presidential preference straw poll, it pays to look at who attended the GOP caucuses.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said the overwhelming majority of Minnesota Republicans stayed home and had nothing to do with Romney’s distant third-place finish behind Santorum and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

“When you compare it to a primary electorate or a general election group, this is a sliver of a sliver of a sliver,” Schier said.

According to the vote totals, fewer than 50,000 people showed up for the Republican caucuses. That means about 95 percent of Minnesotans who voted for the Republican Tom Emmer in the last governor’s election, didn’t take part in the caucuses.

Four years ago, by the time Minnesota’s caucuses rolled around, Mitt Romney was considered the conservative alternative to eventual GOP nominee John McCain who, by then, had become the establishment candidate.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said Romney is now viewed as the establishment candidate and it was anti-establishment Republicans, for the most part, who cast GOP straw poll ballots Tuesday night.

“We’ve been very focused on the battle between the Democrats and the Republicans, but there’s been a civil war within the Republican Party that’s really put the evangelical, tea party populist conservatives in the ascendency within the Republican Party,” Jacobs said. “The victory by Santorum and the very strong support for Ron Paul are evidence of that.”

An important question is whether mainstream Republicans will stay home in November when it counts. Republican strategist Maureen Shaver said she’s not worried. After all, Shaver notes, the caucus poll was non-binding, so plenty of Republicans just didn’t bother.

“I think it’s a function of it being a beauty contest,” Shaver said. “I think in Minnesota if we had a presidential primary we would have had a large turn out because there was more at stake.”

Sarah Janacek, another Republican strategist, said she thinks it extremely unlikely that Santorum or Paul will win the Republican nomination.

She said if too many people perceive the nominee as too conservative, Republicans in Minnesota will have a hard time turning out voters in November and that could be a problem well beyond the presidential race.

“People who hold office right now — particularly legislators — understand where their activists are coming from,” Janacek said. “So they have to be respectful of those activists. But you can’t tell me that they aren’t sitting home at night praying that Romney wins the nomination.”

In addition to dealing Romney a defeat, Jacobs said Minnesota Republicans also sent a message about former Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday. Pawlenty worked hard to promote Romney in the state but ended up with little to show for it.

“Certainly Republican party insiders are going to be taking a different look at Tim Pawlenty and the kind of pull he has within Minnesota,” Jacobs said.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann may be more in tune with Minnesota Republicans, Jacobs said. Although Bachmann hasn’t endorsed any of the presidential candidates, she aligns much closer with Santorum’s brand of social and economic conservatism than Pawlenty’s or Romney’s.

By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio News