But Romney’s biggest problem when it comes to wooing evangelicals may be something outside of his control: his rivals. “He’s got tough competition, particularly in Rick Santorum,” observes Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Rick Santorum’s a tremendously appealing candidate to evangelicals because of his uncompromising pro-life and pro-family stands for many, many years.”
Reed agrees that Santorum’s candidacy poses challenges to Romney’s quest for evangelical votes, noting that Santorum’s “deep and profound faith gives him an emotional connection” with such voters.
Nonetheless, while Romney may not be connecting with a majority of evangelical voters, he doesn’t usually need to. “Unless it’s Iowa or South Carolina or Oklahoma, Romney needs to get about a third of these voters to win these primaries. He doesn’t need to get a majority, he doesn’t need to get a plurality,” Reed notes, pointing to the fact that Romney won one out of every three evangelical voters in Michigan and Ohio. “If Rick gets half that vote or a little more, and Romney gets a third of that vote, Romney is eking out victory, which is what he did in Michigan and Ohio.”
But even if there is a path to Tampa that doesn’t involve gaining significantly more evangelical support, Romney will nevertheless need every vote he can get in the general election. Even a slight decrease in the evangelical turnout could be hugely problematic, says Bauer, who predicts 2012 will be a “base election” and notes that if even 1 to 3 percent of voters stay home on Election Day that could “throw one state or another in the wrong column.”
Vander Plaats raises a different concern: Evangelicals might vote, but not volunteer for the campaign. “There’s a big difference in having someone vote against Barack Obama versus voting enthusiastically for Mitt Romney,” he remarks. “Because if it’s an enthusiastic vote, they’ve done the door-knocking, the phone calls — [they’ve been] influencing their network.”
Other evangelical leaders disagree, arguing that evangelical voters will be energized by their determination to prevent a second Obama term. “Whatever concerns they may have about Mormonism are trumped by their heightening fears of what may lay in store in a second Obama administration,” Land says.
Reed agrees. “I don’t think you can underestimate the extent to which millions of evangelicals believe that preventing a second Obama term is a moral imperative,” he says. “There has never been an administration in U.S. history more hostile to the values held by conservative people of faith than the Obama administration”
What Romney can do, say faith leaders, is try harder to woo evangelicals. “He could help himself a lot if he would get into a fight with the president or somebody on the Left over a values issue,” says Bauer. “He says the right thing when he’s asked about these things, but it’s almost always when he’s asked.”
If Romney becomes the nominee, there are additional steps he could take, including picking a running mate who appeals to evangelicals. He could opt to highlight issues dear to evangelicals in his convention speech: Reed thinks Romney should include more of the kind of talk that he had in his CPAC speech, in which he talked about his opposition to embryo harvesting and his efforts to fight for the restoration of traditional marriage in Massachusetts.