Double Trouble

March 19, 2012

Last week's Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi demonstrated the continuing impact of confessional politics. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney found himself in third place in both Southern states--behind former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Despite being the overwhelming frontrunner, Romney is still struggling to seal the deal with key Republican segments. His loses in Alabama and Mississippi--along with earlier loses in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Oklahoma--are the most dramatic signs that Romney is still struggling to convince conservative evangelicals that it is okay to vote for a Mormon. As has occurred in other states (see post here), Romney did much better with non-evangelicals than with evangelicals. In Alabama, Romney performed eleven percentage points better with non-evangelicals than evangelicals, while Santorum did ten points better with evangelicals than non-evangelicals and Gingrich did seven points better with evangelicals than non-evangelicals. Similarly, in Mississippi, Romney performed six points better with non-evangelicals, while Santorum did twelve points better with evangelicals and Gingrich did three points better with evangelicals. Even though Romney won among non-evangelicals in both states, he had little chance of winning overall since evangelicals made up 80 percent of the vote in Alabama and 83 percent of the vote in Mississippi. With these demographics, Romney should not have raised expectations in the two states. After first downplaying the states as being like an "away game," Romney then predicted he would win at least one of the states.

Romney's campaign should have seen the improbability of winning in Alabama or Mississippi and not wasted so much time and money in the states. A poll by Public Policy Polling just before the primary asked Republicans in the two states what they thought President Barack Obama's religion was. The shocking results should have persuaded the Romney campaign they had no hope in the two states. In Alabama, only 14 percent said they thought Obama was a Christian, while a whopping 45 percent said Muslim (and 41 percent said they were not sure). In Mississippi, the results were even worse: only 12 percent said Christian and 52 percent said Muslim (while 36 percent said they were not sure). In both states, evangelicals were even less likely to say "Christian" and even more likely to say "Muslim." The doubting of Obama's faith and the claim that he is a Muslim (and therefore should not be president) is one of the worst current symptoms of confessional politics. Even more than Mormons, Muslims are disenfranchised by confessional politics. The PPP results should trouble not only the Obama and Romney campaigns, but also all who are concerned about religion and politics in the U.S.