The fact that Santorum will have had his moment could also boost Romney’s standing among evangelicals in the general election. “I actually think that Santorum particularly getting a chance to have a full shot at it may actually benefit Romney, because social conservatives will feel like they had a fair shot, and they lost,” Land says. “And that will make it easier for them to unite around Romney than if they felt like they were double dealt out of a fair chance.”
There are signs, too, that evangelicals aren’t so much opposed to a Romney presidency as they simply prefer his rivals. In Virginia, for instance, where neither Santorum nor Gingrich was on the ballot, Romney won 62 percent of the evangelical vote.
And for Romney, the last general election carries a hopeful precedent.
“McCain similarly did very poorly among evangelicals throughout the primary,” remarks Reed, pointing out that evangelicals preferred Mike Huckabee. And McCain had done himself no favors with evangelicals by calling Jerry Falwell one of “the agents of intolerance” in the United States in 2000.
“Going into the general against Obama, you would have thought this was going to be a problem,” Reed says of McCain’s difficulties. Instead, McCain — who had apologized to Falwell in 2006 — won evangelicals more handily than one of the most religious candidates in recent history. “By the time we got to November,” says Reed, “McCain won a higher percentage of the evangelical vote than George W. Bush did in 2000.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.