Romney's Struggles with White Evangelicals

March 03, 2012

Even as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads the Republican presidential race and is regaining momentum with wins in multiple states this week, his campaign should remain concerned about his continuing struggles to win over white evangelical voters. If Romney won the support of this key Republican voting bloc as well as he does other primary voters, this race would already be over. Even if he does clinch the nomination, he will need to convince white evangelical voters to turn out in November if he is going to have a prayer of winning the White House. Although Romney overwhelmingly won non-evangelical voters in each of the seven states that had entrance or exit polls (six states did not have polls), he lost among white evangelicals in five of those states. Even in Romney’s victories, his support among evangelicals lagged behind that he received among voters in general. Here is a comparison of his support with white evangelicals (first percentage) and with other voters (last percentage):

Iowa (2nd): 14% (3rd, Santorum won with 33%); 38% (won)
New Hampshire (won): 31% (won); 40% (won)
South Carolina (2nd): 21% (2nd, Gingrich won with 45%); 38% (won)
Florida (won): 36% (2nd, Gingrich won with 38%); 54% (won)
Nevada (won): 40% (won); 56% (won)
Michigan (won): 35% (2nd, Santorum won with 51%); 45% (won)
Arizona (won): 36% (2nd, Santorum won with 37%); 54% (won)
The gap between his support among white evangelicals and other voters was 24 points in Iowa, 9 in New Hampshire, 17 in South Carolina, 18 in Florida, 16 in Nevada, 10 in Michigan, and 18 in Arizona. That is a fairly consistent and large deficit with a key Republican voting bloc that cost him Iowa and South Carolina--and probably cost him victories in other states where data is not available. It seems evident that in our age of confessional politics, Romney's Mormon faith continues to create problems for him in the ballot box.

If Romney captures the nomination, he will need the solid support of evangelicals if he hopes to become the first Mormon president. Without overwhelming support from evangelicals in November, Romney will not be able to overcome the votes President Barack Obama will likely receive from other groups of voters. In the 2008 presidential election, Obama easily beat McCain among voters who were of a religion other than Christianity or claimed no religion--with McCain receiving only one-quarter of the vote with those groups that collectively were 20 percent of the vote. Obama also beat McCain among Catholics in general, although he fell slightly behind McCain among white Catholics and Protestants in general. The only religious demographic in which Obama fell below one-third of the vote was white evangelicals. Among the 26 percent of voters who were white evangelicals, McCain beat Obama by a 74-to-24 percent margin. Yet, even that was not enough to overcome McCain's deficits in other voting blocs. If Romney hopes to win in November, he will not only need to improve on McCain's showing among Catholics and those of other faiths, but he will also need to maintain McCain's level of support among white evangelicals. Even if white evangelicals do not turn to vote for Obama, Romney could face insurmountable odds if they stay home and do not vote. Karl Rove, a top adviser to George W. Bush, often claimed prior to the 2004 presidential campaign that the only reason the 2000 election was close was because millions of white evangelical voters did not show up to vote. Rove led Bush to increase his outreach to this key Republican voting bloc, and was rewarded with 78 percent of that population's vote in 2004. The skepticism of evangelicals is not only making it more difficult for Romney to end the primary race, but could also prevent him from defeating Obama. Thus, even as he celebrates recent wins, his campaign should be concerned about how to convince evangelicals that they can vote for a Mormon. Otherwise, he will be watching from afar as Obama once again places his hand on a Bible and takes the presidential oath of office.

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