If I were on Team Romney, I’d be fairly heartened by the latest Pew survey on religion and politics. It’s true that white evangelicals are disproportionately less likely to prefer our guy, but not by a very large margin–17 percent of them as opposed to 23 percent of the GOP primary electorate as a whole. Put another way, if white evangelicals preferred him at the same rate as mainline Protestants and white Catholics–the two other major GOP religious groupings–he’d be polling at no higher than 26 percent.
In the entire field, the evangelical vote is sufficiently dispersed that Herman Cain, with the plurality, garners only 26 percent and Newt Gingrich only 19. Compare that to, say, the 2008 South Carolina primary, which John McCain won with 33 percent of the vote, just ahead of Mike Huckabee’s 30 percent. Evangelicals, constituting 60 percent of the vote, went 43 percent for Huckabee, 27 percent for McCain, and only 11 percent for Romney, who finished a poor fourth overall. Or consider the Tennessee primary, which Huckabee captured with 34 percent of the vote, followed by McCain at 32 percent and Romney at 24 percent. Evangelicals, constituting 73 percent of voters, went 43 percent for Huckabee, 27 percent for McCain, and 20 percent for Romney.
Using regression analysis, John Green and I were able to show that Romney’s weakness among evangelical voters cost him the GOP nomination in 2008. This time around, he seems to be doing a much better job of keeping the “evangelical gap” with his competitors down. And based on the Pew numbers, I’d say the chances of his continuing to do so are pretty good.
As of the second week in November, evangelicals as a whole (not just Republicans) actually said they preferred Romney to President Obama by a few points more than they preferred Gingrich, Cain, or Perry to the president. And more of them (46 percent) had a favorable view of Romney than of either Cain (45 percent) or Perry (42 percent). The only candidate who beat him out on favorability was Gingrich, and by just four points. So if Romney can get his aggregate number out of the mid-20s, the likelihood is that it will include a sufficient number of evangelicals to enable him to capture the nomination.