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.
Evangelical leaders are dismissive of the notion that Romney’s faith is alienating a significant chunk of evangelical voters, though they acknowledge that it may be influencing a small number. Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a Rick Santorum supporter, points out that Mormons are key political allies. “In the war over the kind of country we are, evangelicals and serious Catholics and Mormons tend to be all on the same side of the public-policy issues that are being debated in a campaign,” he says.
Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, thinks that the Mormon issue was already hashed out in 2008. “While Romney is not going to get some evangelicals’ votes as a result of it, I don’t think that it’s a significant factor at all,” he says, adding that Jon Huntsman’s run also helped. “The fact that you had two Mormons in the race just made it less of a novelty.”
Reed says other factors account for this gap. “I think the bigger issues have been his record as a governor of Massachusetts — especially Romneycare — and the fact that he’s running in a primary against candidates who have been much more identified with the issues and values of voters of faith,” he says.
Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social-conservative activist in Iowa and head of the Family Leader, also highlights Romney’s record in Massachusetts. “We hear today that’s he pro-life, but we also hear that when he was governor he put in $50 co-pay abortions in the state,” he says. “We hear today that God’s design for marriage [is] one man, one woman, yet he basically presided over same-sex marriage in the state.”
The Romney campaign defends the ex-governor’s record on both matters, arguing that Massachusetts law and past court decisions made it illegal for a health-care plan not to fund abortions, and noting that Romney pushed for a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman after same-sex marriage was legalized by the Massachusetts supreme court. But it’s likely Vander Plaats is not alone in his view of Romney’s record on these issues.
“There’s a trust gap,” Vander Plaats adds. “I think a lot of us conservatives feel that he will morph into who you want him to be depending on which campaign he’s in.”
Bauer agrees that some may be concerned that Romney’s position switches aren’t authentic. However, he argues that the larger problem Romney faces is that even voters who are willing to believe he has sincerely changed his views are wary of his willingness to passionately fight on those issues. Evangelicals, Bauer observes, are doubtful that values issues “would play much of a role in the expenditure of political capital or energy in his administration.”
Referencing Mitch Daniels’s call for a “truce” on social issues, Bauer argues that it’s the Left, not the Right, that is more aggressively fighting the culture wars — and that Romney is having trouble persuading voters he has enough fire in his belly to fight back. “There’s this lack of confidence that he will make the case in these inevitable flare-ups persuasively and passionately — like he means it,” Bauer remarks.