One doesn’t have to dive too much into the exit polls to understand a central fact of the race so far: When Rick Santorum competes hard in a state, he wins the evangelical vote. Where the evangelical vote is dominant (as it is in my home state of Tennessee), he wins the state. It’s not hard to understand why.
Let’s play a candidate word-association game. If I say “economy,” do you think first of Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum? Exit polls would indicate that Mitt Romney wins a strong plurality of economy-focused voters. Now flip the word to “values.” That’s Rick Santorum’s electoral wheelhouse. To be clear, that’s not to say that Santorum isn’t clearly superior to Obama on economic issues and Romney superior to Obama on the values issues, but the voters are simply reflecting back the candidates’ largely self-defined messages and reputations.
Moreover, these identities are largely fixed. Romney could spend the next six weeks talking about nothing but religious liberty and abortion, and he’d still not match Rick Santorum’s status in the pro-life community. Likewise, Santorum could talk for six straight weeks about manufacturing and blue-collar jobs, and every interview would drag him back to religion and abortion. So the question isn’t “will Mitt win the evangelical vote” or “will Rick win on the economy” but whether each can pull enough voters from the other man’s base to win the nomination.
Santorum has the more difficult job. I don’t buy the binary construct that this is an “economy” election versus a “values” election. It’s both, and if Romney didn’t share the broad values of social conservatives he wouldn’t be the prohibitive favorite. A pro-abortion Republican could never be in Romney’s position — no matter the strength of his economic record. But while the election is about the economy and about values, relative emphasis varies, and right now the economy is the dominant concern. As a result, Romney’s Republican base is simply bigger than Santorum’s, so he doesn’t need to win the evangelical vote to win the nomination. He just needs to be competitive.
Of course, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that external events could change the equation. After all, Santorum’s post-Iowa surge coincided with Obama’s assault on religious liberty, an issue that Santorum was perfectly positioned to exploit. But barring unforeseen events, voters’ emphasis is likely to remain on the economy.
As an evangelical for Mitt, I feel like Mitt’s character and record merit more evangelical support than he receives, but at this point it’s overwhelmingly likely he’ll get enough evangelical support to win the nomination.