Media speculation abounds that Mitt Romney’s poor performance among Evangelical voters in the 2012 Primaries is rooted in anti-Mormonism—a sentiment that will surely intensify if the former governor loses this week in Alabama and Mississippi. My analysis of seven surveys conducted by YouGov from late January to early March 2012 (pooled n=7,000, with 1,791 likely Republican primary voters), however, suggests that Romney’s religion is not the main reason why he has not won over these voters.
Why, then, has Romney underperformed among this group throughout the primary season? The answer most likely resides in moral issues like abortion and gay marriage. For, unlike attitudes about Mormons, Evangelical Republicans are much more conservative on these issues than their fellow partisans. Moreover, and also unlike anti-Mormonism, Evangelicals are more likely to vote in the primaries based upon moral issues than other Republicans.
This is consistent with Erick Erickson’s January account of a meeting of prominent Christian conservatives — one which also suggests Team Romney played this all wrong (although Erickson is no Romney fan for a host of reasons):
If you are reading this from the media, I think the story you should tell is that Mitt Romney will probably become the nominee of the Republican Party with even less good feelings between evangelicals and him than John McCain had.
The problem for Team Romney is that the distrust of Romney is overwhelmingly about his record and shiftiness, but the Romney campaign fundamentally believes it is about his religion. When Team Romney concluded the pitch (read from an iPad seemingly without a passionate delivery) with an admonishment to not be an anti-Mormon bigot, it was game over. Several of the attendees felt like the Romney campaign was almost implying that they’d win without evangelicals and would expect everyone to line up when it was over even without Romney reaching out.
Erickson’s reference to John McCain is interesting, as ol’ Maverick also had a more difficult time with the evangelical vote than George W. Bush. Comparing the 2004 and 2008 exit polls, it appears evangelical turnout marginally increased — as it has for decades, due in large part to the rising socioeconomic status (.pdf) of the demo — from 23% to 26% of voters. However, Bush won 78% of white evangelicals, while McCain only won 73%. Overall, that’s a little over a percent of the electorate — which seems small, but which could matter in a very close election, depending on where those votes are located (it would likely be less significant a loss in Alabama or Mississippi than in Virginia, North Carolina or Georgia).
Of course, the exits are not detailed enough to explain the difference from ’04 to ’08, so it would be risky to assume McCain’s showing was all or even largely about evangelicals thinking he was insufficiently committed to social issues. Evangelicals care about those issues, but not all of them are single-issue voters. The economic meltdown of ’08 may well have played a role here. Moreover, it is possible that the larger youth vote in 2008 brought out young evangelicals who are less socially conservative than their parents. In these respects, the 2012 environment would likely be more favorable to Romney, should he become the GOP nominee.
The lesson here is that Romney should be able to make inroads with evangelicals if he becomes the GOP nominee. The question is whether he is up to the task. Maintaining his standard cool attitude about the campaign in this regard may make it tougher for someone perceived as inauthentic to build bridges with this demographic.