Former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts appears to be moving inexorably toward the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination. One by one, contenders have risen to challenge him, and one by one they have failed to maintain their viability (Newt Gingrich) or even their candidacies (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry).
Romney’s well-funded, nationally organized campaign has continued to fend off challenges and amass convention delegates at an accelerating pace. At this point, he seems to have made considerable headway with all elements of the party except evangelical social conservatives.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has provided the most lasting competition as the “non-Romney” that a significant conservative faction of the party desires.
By winning Tennessee and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday, and Mississippi and Alabama the following week, Santorum was finally able to get his much desired “one-on-one” matchup with Romney in Illinois, the kind of state Santorum had not succeeded at winning previously. Alas, he lost Illinois by double digits to Romney (46.7% to 35%), and the next day, former Florida governor Jeb Bush endorsed Romney, a huge “get” in conservative GOP circles.
Evangelicals are GOP stalwarts
Evangelicals make up a significant percentage of the electorate and provide the most reliable voting bloc in the GOP. In the 2008 election, they were the one group that stayed almost as loyal to the GOP as in 2004. George W. Bush received 78% of the evangelical vote in 2004; John McCain won 74% in 2008.
But evangelicals have not warmed to Romney’s candidacy in this election cycle. Santorum won the evangelical vote by double-digit margins in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio. Conversely, Santorum, who is Catholic, lost the Catholic vote to Romney, a Mormon, in Michigan (44% to 37%), Ohio (44% to 31%), Illinois (53% to 30%) and only narrowly won his fellow Catholics in Tennessee (36% to 35%). Clearly, Romney has made more progress with the Catholic conservative vote than with evangelicals. However, this might be changing.
In Illinois, Romney cut Santorum’s margin among evangelicals to seven percentage points (46% to 39%) while carrying those sympathetic to the Tea Party movement by nine points (47% to 36%). David Brody’s forthcoming book, The Teavangelicals, documents the tremendous overlap between the Tea Party movement and those with evangelical sensibilities, and Romney has been faring better with Tea Party supporters in recent contests, only losing them by three points in Ohio and winning them in Michigan and Illinois .
Why evangelicals will support him
It would be a mistake to read too much into evangelical social conservatives’ reluctance to rally behind Romney. Here are five reasons:
•First, approximately one-third of evangelicals have already been supporting Romney.
•Second, Santorum is a very appealing candidate to social conservatives, but favoring Santorum doesn’t necessarily translate into hostility to Romney, especially in a general election.
•Third, many evangelicals argue that rallying behind Romney as a nominee will be easier if they feel they and their candidate had a fair shot. The late Santorum surge might have provided that opportunity, even if it ultimately fails to secure the nomination.
•Fourth, the evangelical and conservative unease about Romney has not been primarily about his Mormon faith but about his earlier pro-choice and liberal social positions. Ironically, if Romney had been more Mormon, more in tune with his faith’s views on these issues from the beginning of his political career, there would be far fewer doubts among evangelicals.
•Fifth, one should never underestimate President Obama’s unique ability to rally people behind his opponent. Whatever lingering doubts some evangelicals may have about Romney, or discomfort about his Mormon faith, they pale compared with their fears of a second Obama administration.
There are things Romney can do, however, to energize evangelicals. He needs to keep asserting his pro-life and pro-family positions; reiterating his opposition to “ObamaCare”; and emphasizing his belief in an original intent to the Constitution, a strictly constructionist judiciary and support for Israel.
The most fateful decision Romney will make between now and the election, if nominated, is his running mate. He must pick a well-known social conservative. Sen. Marco Rubio, the gifted and charismatic senator from Florida, would be a very popular and energizing choice. There are others as well who could be chosen. However, if Romney really wanted to provide Americans with a stark contrast and a crystal clear choice about their future, he could pick Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.