National Review‘s Katrina Trinko argues that Mitt Romney has an “evangelical problem.”
In state after state, evangelicals have sent Mitt Romney a clear message: We’re just not that into you.
Some evangelicals do pull the lever for Romney. But consistently there is a wide gap between Romney’s support among evangelicals and his support among other groups. On average, there is a 19-point difference between Romney’s support among non-evangelicals and his support among evangelicals in Republican primaries, according to ABC News’s survey of primary states with exit- or entrance-polling data available.
That’s a sizeable gap–and one that has complicated Romney’s path to the nomination.
I’ve looked at the exit polls too, and find a somewhat more complicated story to tell. Looking at seven southern states (I include Florida, which is kinda sorta southern in the northern part of the state), Gingrich ranges from a low of 25% (Tennessee) to a high of 52% (Georgia) among self-identified evangelicals; Santorum ranges from a low of 19% (Florida) to a high of 42% (Tennessee); and Romney ranges from 19% (Georgia) to 36% (Florida). Gingrich “wins” three states (South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia), while Santorum takes the other four. Romney comes in second in three of the states (South Carolina, Florida, and Oklahoma–two of which are ties), and third in the others (but always within 5 points of second).
Now, if you regard (as I do) Gingrich’s South Carolina and Georgia performances as atypical, then his support among evangelicals drops to levels barely above those of Romney. Stated another way, when Gingrich settles back down to earth among evangelical voters, Romney’s support goes up a little and Santorum’s support goes up a lot.
There’s yet another way of viewing these results. On Super Tuesday, Santorum got 42% of the evangelical vote in Tennessee and 37% in Oklahoma. In both those states, Gingrich and Romney virtually tied far off Santorum’s pace. In Mississippi and Alabama, Santorum did a little worse, while Gingrich and Romney did a little better, than a week earlier.
Does Romney have an evangelical problem? Yes. Is it a big problem? In one way, no: he’s usually within shouting distance of second place and often within hailing distance of first place. In another way, yes: the media narrative keeps telling us that Romney can’t win the evangelical vote. But consider this: in Mississippi, roughly 7,000 votes separated the winner (Santorum) from the third place finisher (Romney). A shift of less than 2% of the more than 200,000 evangelical voters from Santorum to Romney would have changed the picture completely. A second place finish would have required only a shift of about 1,000 votes from Gingrich to Romney. I know that close only counts in horseshoes (and delegate apportionment), but I’m not willing to base too much of an interpretation on numbers that small.
I am, however, willing to base an interpretation on these numbers. In 2008, the candidate with the “evangelical problem” was John McCain, who in matchups with Huckabee and Romney in six of the seven aforementioned states never finished better than second and twice (Florida and Georgia) finished third among Protestants who attended church weekly (a smaller portion of the electorate, but as close as I could come to “evangelical”; it’s not a perfect proxy, and so the comparison is inexact, but it’s the best I can do). Aside from Alabama (where he garnered 33% of this constituency), McCain’s 2008 numbers were in 2012 Romney territory (25% to 28%). To be sure, McCain–himself identified as a Baptist–was running against an echt evangelical: with the exception of Florida (won in this constituency by Romney), Huckabee’s numbers were in the 40s.
I know that saying that Romney 2012 is pretty dadgum close to McCain 2008 is damning the former with faint praise. But there aren’t many more states where the evangelical proportion of the electorate matches what we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. Were it not for the SuperPACs, I’d be tempted to say that things are likely soon to look up for Romney the way they did for McCain. But even if, as is likely (nay, certain), Romney’s path is tougher than McCain’s, we would do well to remember this last number: in 2008, McCain won Protestant weekly church attenders 2-1 over Obama. Nothing I’ve seen over the past three months or three years leads me to believe that any Republican candidate’s margin will be less than that.