Politics Counts: The Demographic Road Ahead for Romney

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The Republican race for the nomination this week began to look like plodding jog to the finish line for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Another win in Illinois on Tuesday, and the delegates that went with it, indicated that Mr. Romney is on an all-but-inevitable path to become the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Now the path gets trickier.

The game isn’t over yet, of course. Gaffes and changing primary terrain will likely drag things out for more weeks, maybe months. But now that Mr. Romney seems to have a good grip on his prize, we can begin to assess the impact of the longer-than-anticipated nomination battle.

What effect did three months of campaigning and carping against his fellow Republican hopefuls have on Mr. Romney? It’s left him with some challenges as the conversation turns to the general election as several polls have noted, but he’s made some gains as well.

A look at Wall Street Journal/NBC polls taken during the primary process – December, January and February/March – shows that team Romney has indeed made its road to victory in November tougher with key constituencies. He’s not only lost strength in them, but he’s watched President Obama’s strength grow.

Among “working class whites” Mr. Romney has seen his positive/negative feeling rating go from a net negative 7 percentage points to a net negative of 13 percent over these polls. At the same time Mr. Obama has gone from a sizable net negative of 16 percentage points to a net positive of 5 percentage points.

And when those voters are asked about a head-to-head general election matchup, Mr. Romney has lost his once-considerable advantage to the point where he is essentially tied with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Romney has also lost considerable ground with women in head-to-head comparisons against Mr. Obama.

But despite that bad news, the last three months have not been a total loss to for team Romney. They have grown in strength in a few keys groups, particularly conservatives. The number of self-described conservatives who say they have positive feelings toward Mr. Romney has grown from 32% in December to 42% in the most recent poll.

Coming into primary season, one of the big questions for Mr. Romney was could he win over conservatives and prove he was one of them. These numbers suggest that he has at least been able to build enthusiasm among that group of voters.

That support could be a big help in the fall, and that’s where the Romney campaign is now focused as its surrogates talk about pivoting to the general election – witness the now infamous Etch A Sketch comment.

But the numbers here suggest that might not be such an easy task, Romney's support has not changed much throughouth the primary season and Illinois is a perfect example.

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

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