Politics Counts: Is Class War Unfolding in GOP Primaries?

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The dominant story coming out of Tuesday’s three big wins for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota –has been his strength with conservative voters and Mitt Romney’s need to find a way to reach them. But that's not the whole story.

There’s a good deal of truth to that "Romney needs conservatives" line of thought. Mr. Santorum has the endorsement of a group of influential evangelical leaders and the caucus format – like that in Minnesota and Colorado votes Tuesday night – tends to favor more ideologically pure candidates.

Look closely at the county results out of the first nominating contests, however, and there is another issue at play. A class war may be quietly unfolding in the Republican primaries and caucuses with former Massachusetts Gov. Romney standing on one side of the front and his opponents standing on the other.

To this point, 390 counties have voted in the GOP contests (excluding Missouri where no delegates were on the line) and thanks to Tuesday’s big night Mr. Santorum is the big leader. He has won about half those counties, 190 to be precise. Mr. Romney has won 92 counties and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has won 79 of them. But split those counties by income – into counties that sit above and below the state median household income level – and a clear candidate divide appears.

So far, the GOP nominating contests have passed through 113 counties where the median household is above the statewide average and 277 counties where the median household income is below.

Mr. Romney has carried the wealthier counties. He’s won 52 of them, or 46%. But he has struggled in those less-wealthy counties, winning only 64– or about 15%.

The vote for the suddenly surging Mr. Santorum looks much more balanced. He has done OK in the wealthier counties, winning 44 of them – or about 39%. But he has also captured 146 of those less-wealthy counties, or about 54%.

The strengths of Rep. Ron Paul and Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, lie in the less-wealthy counties. Together have only won 17 counties where the median household income was above state median household income and 85 that were below.

One narrative in the GOP field, up to now, has been that Mr. Romney is the candidate of the wealthy. But at the county level that’s not completely accurate. Rather, it appears that Mr. Romney is a strong candidate in relatively well-off counties and that he struggles in places where people are less-wealthy. That’s an important distinction for a few reasons - particularly in the upcoming key primary in Michigan. We have noted coming political problems in this class divide for some time.

Read the rest of this week's POLITICS COUNTS column on the Wall Street Journal's website.