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.
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.
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.