Religion, Race and Romney’s Road Ahead

By Gary Langer

Mar 9, 2012 12:50pm

Beyond our post yesterday on whether Newt Gingrich is siphoning votes from Rick Santorum, three other fascinating areas emerge from the exit polls and other recent survey data on the Republican presidential contest. The subjects: Religion, race, and Mitt Romney’s apparent inability to light a fire.

First, religion. With the Alabama and Mississippi primaries approaching, the question will be starker than ever: What is it with Romney and evangelicals?

The answer is twofold: First, exit poll results demonstrate that the belief structure of many evangelical voters leads them away from Romney, a Mormon. At the same time, the data are variable enough to suggest that this doesn’t reflect flat rejection of Romney by evangelicals – rather, a preference to look elsewhere, given another option.

Generally, it’s a clear problem for Romney. He lost evangelicals by 19 points in Tennessee, 18 points in Michigan, 18 points in Iowa and 17 points in Ohio, while winning non-evangelicals in those states by 18, 18, 12 and 15 points, respectively. In Georgia and South Carolina, Romney lost evangelicals by 32 and 22 points, while running about evenly among non-evangelicals. In Florida and Arizona, he ran evenly with his closest competitor among evangelicals, while winning non-evangelicals by 27- and 36-point margins.

Combining results across all states in which we’ve had exit or entrance polls, Romney’s done 19 points better among non-evangelical than among evangelical voters. It’s among the few most consistent gaps in his support profile across the 2012 contest to date.

A related result underscores the reason: Evangelicals are vastly more likely than other GOP voters to say it’s very important to them to support a candidate who shares their religious beliefs. In the eight states where that question has been asked, Romney’s won a mere 19 percent of these strongly religion- focused voters.

This does not bode well for Romney in Alabama and Mississippi; evangelicals accounted for 77 and 69 percent of voters in the 2008 GOP primaries there, among their highest proportions anywhere. And with Santorum and Gingrich on the ballot this year, they do have elsewhere to go.

But the last point is a key one, because where evangelicals don’t feel they have elsewhere to go, they’ve been more accepting of Romney. As I noted yesterday, he won 62 percent of evangelicals in Virginia, where the only other choice was Ron Paul; it’s the first and only state where he actually did better among evangelicals than among non-evangelicals. In our ABC/Post pre-election polling, moreover, few evangelicals have ruled out Romney entirely, and many instead cite him as their second choice.

If Romney prevails for the nomination, then, the likely question won’t be whether he wins white evangelicals against Barack Obama – but the extent to which he can inspire them to turn out.

RACE – Then there’s race. The sentence above pivots from “evangelicals” in a discussion of the GOP primaries to “white evangelicals” in a discussion of the general election. That’s because, in the Republican primaries, it’s almost redundant. In states for which we have exit and entrance polls, 91 percent of Republican voters to date have been white. If we exclude two states, Florida and Arizona, that goes to 96 percent.

While that’s typical for Republican primaries, it runs contrary to the increasing racial diversity of the nation’s electorate more broadly. The share of whites in general election for president has declined from 90 percent in the 1976 to 74 percent in 2008. Obama lost whites by 12 points in 2008, about the average for a Democratic candidate; he won the election on the strength – and increasing size – of the minority vote.

It’s a point worth considering, not just for the 2012 general election but for the future of the Republican Party beyond. If minorities by and large are not participating in the party’s primaries, will they tune into its candidates later? Given the country’s demographic trends, it increasingly matters.

AND THE FIRE – Finally there’s the related question of Romney’s ability to light a fire under his voters. His campaign’s appropriately been described as lackluster. One interesting example is Romney-friendly Vermont. Independent voters surged to the polls there Tuesday, increasing their share of the state’s GOP primary electorate from 23 percent in 2008 to 40 percent this year.

But they did not turn out for Romney: Seven in 10 Vermont independents showed up to vote for someone else. And in general elections, independents customarily are the quintessential swing voters.

Romney campaign officials pushed back this week by pointing out that his favorability rating in national polls is no worse than Bill Clinton’s was at this time in 1992 – yet Clinton turned those views around sufficiently to win his party’s nomination, and then two terms in office.

It’s true enough – but with a cherry-picking alert. In ABC/Post data, Clinton at this point in 1992 was seen favorably by 39 percent of Americans; Romney’s currently seen favorably by 35 percent, about the same. But one thing to note is that March 1992 was a month and a half after the first controversy over Clinton’s sexual escapades had erupted, the Gennifer Flowers affair. Romney’s favorability is 4 points lower without any such scandal. Romney’s unfavorable rating, moreover, is 14 points higher than Clinton’s was then, scandal and all.

The number of Americans who see Romney favorably is lower than it was for any leading presidential candidate at about this point (in winter or springtime ABC/Post data) in 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996 and 1992 alike. Of all those candidates – both George Bushes, Clinton, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Obama – only one was underwater in approval, as Romney is now. That was Hillary Clinton, who ultimately did not prevail.

This in no way predicts Romney’s future. But it means he’s got his work cut out for him, for sure. The question: Whether the turnaround skills he learned in business will work in politics, too.

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