The headline of this story–”majority of evangelicals pick Santorum in Iowa”–is misleading. Last I checked, 32% wasn’t a majority. After Santorum’s 32%, Ron Paul received 18% of the evangelical vote, and Gingrich, Perry, and Romney each received 14%. There are clearly more important storylines from the caucuses–the Paulist proportion (21%), which is highly unlikely to be matched in non-caucus states, for example–but this is worth pondering for a moment.
The evangelical vote won’t matter in New Hampshire, which Romney has sewn up…apparently. But then there’s South Carolina, where Rick Perry seemingly will compete. He has money and has spent time there. Santorum put all his eggs in the Iowa basket, which paid off for him, but he now has to scramble to raise money and assemble an organization that enables him to move forward. For the Palmetto State, there are no recent polls, though I’m quite confident that Newt Gingrich is nowhere near 37%, as he was in the pre-Christmas RCP average.
If I were Rick Perry, I wouldn’t count too heavily on evangelical identity politics in South Carolina. Yes, he can talk the Baptist talk, and there is a difference between midwestern and southern evangelicals. But consider this: as R.R. Reno noted, in Iowa, 60% of the evangelical vote went to Catholic and Mormon candidates. (Well, it’s actually 61% if you include Huntsman.) Perry “might could” do better in South Carolina than in Iowa, but his likeliest role is as a spoiler for Santorum, siphoning off social conservative votes that would otherwise go to the home-schooling father of seven.
Which would seem to leave Romney in the driver’s seat.
The question, which I can’t answer with any confidence, is whether the “political maturity” that evangelicals evinced in Iowa works in Romney’s favor down the road. Another way of cutting the evangelical electorate is to say that 86% supported someone other than Romney and 85% didn’t choose a Mormon. When the field is less fractured, what happens? Do identity and/or social conservatism matter more, or do people start thinking seriously about who has the best shot of winning in November? In Iowa, Romney did slightly better among the 47% of the voters who stressed the ability to beat Obama (31%) or having the right experience (16%) than did Santorum among the 49% of the voters who emphasized “true conservatism” (25%) or “strong moral character” (24%). I should add that Romney’s advantage over Santorum in his two criteria is almost as pronounced as Santorum’s in his.
My advice to Romney: keep hammering his electability and experiential advantages. He can’t gain the “true conservative” label. On character, he’d seem to be able to compete, so long as he emphasizes family life rather than political career (leaving aside the suspicions about Mormonism). My advice to Santorum: emphasize your successful record in winning in a state that’s difficult for conservatives. If you can make it in Pennsylvania, surely you can make it anywhere?
For better or worse, the salience of the “true conservatism” label will likely diminish somewhat in importance as the primaries wear on. In Iowa, it was partly a proxy for Paulism. (In saying this, I hasten to add that I care as much as, if not more than, the next guy about fidelity to the constitution, on which Ron Paul does not have a monopoly, even in this field. Any Republican, especially one watched by commentators and members of Congress, will be far superior to the current inhabitant of the Oval Office on this measure.)