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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum’s departure from the presidential race could not come soon enough for Mitt Romney. In proving himself more tenacious than anyone predicted, Santorum dramatized one of Romney’s major problems, created another, and forced the now inevitable Republican nominee into a strategic dilemma.

Republicans may condemn class warfare, but their primaries turned into a class struggle. Romney performed best among voters with high incomes, and was consistently weaker with the white working class, even in the late primaries where he put Santorum away. And Romney cannot win without rolling up very large margins among less well-off whites.

At the same time, Santorum’s strength among evangelical Christians pressured Romney to toughen his positions even as the Republican Party as a whole, at both the state and national levels, has pushed policies on contraception and abortion that have alienated many women, particularly the college educated.

This is Romney’s other problem: Among college-educated white men, Romney had a healthy 57 percent to 39 percent lead over President Obama in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. But among college-educated white women, Obama led Romney by 60 percent to 40 percent. This netted to a rather astounding 38-point gender gap, compared with a net 27-point gap among all white voters. (Thanks to Peyton Craighill of The Washington Post’s polling staff for extracting these numbers, which are based on registered voters.) Overall, the poll taken before Santorum left the race showed Obama leading Romney by 51 percent to 44 percent.

Thus the box the primaries built for Romney: He must simultaneously court evangelical Christians and working-class voters who have eluded him so far, but also reassure socially moderate women higher up the class ladder who, for now, are providing Obama with decisive margins. It’s not easy to do both.