The serious economic challenges facing the next three GOP primary states may hurt Romney and help more conservative candidates

Attacks on Mitt Romney as a soulless "corporate raider" leading a company "more ruthless than Wall Street" didn't work so well in New Hampshire. The former Massachusetts governor still managed to win the primary there handily, notching two wins in a row (or one win and one unclear outcome that's being called a tie, as it turns out). But renewed pounding on his speaking fees and 15 percent tax payments may be taking its toll in South Carolina. The Washington Post noted on Wednesday that conservative talk radio was ablaze with talk of a Gingrich surge there. Then a series of polls showed Gingrich closing the gap with Romney in the state. Nate Silver's latest projections give Gingrich an advantage in the state of almost three points.

While most accounts focus on Gingrich's most recent debate performances or Romney's corporate image, part of the story may well have to do with the economy. Conservatives tend to do better where the economy is worse.  

South Carolina's unemployment rate sits at 9.9 percent, 4.9 percent higher than New Hampshire’s and 1.3 percent higher than the national average. Workers there take home an average of $37,923 per year, $6,487 less than the national average, ranking 42nd of the 50 states on this score. It ranks 39th in its percentage of adults who are college grads. There are close associations between these factors and political conservatism. Approximately six in ten South Carolina voters identify themselves as evangelicals. 

If Gingrich does win in South Carolina, the next two primary states, Florida and Nevada, pose similar challenges for Romney on the economic front and have the potential to throw the race back open. Florida’s unemployment rate of 10 percent is even higher than South Carolina’s, though it does better on both average wages (ranking 29th) and the share of adults holding college degrees (28th).

Nevada, which holds its caucus on Feb. 4, is among the hardest-hit economies in the U.S., with an unemployment rate of 13 percent. It ranks 45th in college grads and dead last in the share of its population holding professional and knowledge-based jobs.

Conservatism has more and more become the ideology of the economically left behind, and the next three GOP primary states all face serious economic challenges. For the next few weeks, at least, this economic reality will tilt the Republican contest in an even more conservative direction than it has been already.

Top image credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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