01/09/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2012

Winning the Conservative Battle, Losing the West: Mitt's Quandary

Despite eeking out the narrowest of victories in Iowa last week, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney still appears unable to rally the Republican electorate behind him. Polls continue to show the former Massachusetts governor garnering about a quarter of the vote nationally, while his more conservative rivals hover in striking distance despite comparatively fewer resources and smaller name ID. One of the important stories to watch in the ensuing weeks will be whether Romney chooses to tack to the right in order to endear himself to the GOP base. If he does, he risks alienating moderate voters in key western swing states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Importantly, Romney's chief rival now appears to be Rick Santorum, an authentic culture warrior who rode evangelical support to a surprising near-win in Iowa. Santorum is already billing himself as "the conservative alternative" to Romney, who has failed to win over many social conservatives despite changing his views to adopt some extreme right-wing positions. Santorum's success going forward clearly depends on his ability to parlay his anti-birth control, anti-gay rights, views into support in upcoming primaries in states like South Carolina and Florida, where conservative Christians constitute an influential portion of the GOP electorate.

Romney, who has already moved to the right on several social issues, may be tempted to highlight his more extreme positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights. This is a risky strategy, though, as general election voters in key states -- particularly in the West -- strongly disagree with the GOP consensus. Our recent polling in Nevada, for example, reveals that just 12% of voters in Nevada want to see abortion banned. In a recent Colorado poll, we found that 79% of voters in the state favor some legal recognition for same sex couples, while just 18% say there should be no recognition.

Nationally, Project New West has found that 80 percent of voters nationwide agree with the statement that "government should not be getting involved in the decision to end a pregnancy, it's better left to a woman, her family and her faith."

Social issues aren't the only place where Romney is facing rightward pressure, however. Libertarians and right-wingers within the GOP are also working to peg Romney as a "timid Massachusetts moderate" on issues like taxes, social security and welfare reform.

The broader electorate, however, is unlikely to respond to right-wing red meat on these issues. In a six-state regional poll conducted in AZ, CO, MT, NM, NV and WA, 60% of all voters responded that they were less likely to vote for a candidate who called social security a "monstrous lie." In Nevada, we found that 55% opposed a proposal to cut Medicare funding and eliminating Medicare for those under age 55.

The GOP electorate is clearly still looking for a candidate who they feel shares their values and ideals. The problem for Republicans is that those ideals are likely to turn off the most important voters in the most crucial swing states come November.