Two explanations for the enduring refusal of Christian conservatives to consent to Romney’s nomination
The 22-point shellacking that he suffered in Louisiana over the weekend didn’t change the reality of the Republican presidential race: It’s still Mitt Romney’s to lose. But it did highlight the remarkable degree to which a major component of the Republican Party’s base – evangelical Christians – is intent on not participating in Romney’s coronation.
Among the 61 percent of voters in Louisiana’s GOP primary who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, Romney was crushed by Rick Santorum, 56 to 20 percent. Among the rest of the electorate, Romney actually won, 38 to 37 percent. This merely continues the pattern that has defined the GOP race: In states where evangelicals make up more than 50 percent of the Republican electorate, Romney can’t win; in states where they make up less than 50 percent, he can’t lose.
It’s becoming clear as the Republican nominating process plays out that Romney doesn’t really have a conservative problem in the way that many believed he did at the start of the campaign. The real resistance to him is narrower, and tied directly to religion. Among self-described “very conservative” voters who don’t also identify as evangelicals, Romney has actually held his own. But he gets just absolutely clobbered among conservatives who are evangelical or born-again.
This isn’t a new problem for Romney, who probably would have been his party’s nominee in 2008 if only evangelicals had been more receptive to him. Back then, Romney’s strategy was to run as far to the right as possible in order to take advantage of the conservative base’s deep distrust of John McCain, and it wasn’t a total failure. Ultimately, he fell short in Iowa because evangelicals flocked to Mike Huckabee there, as they did in subsequent states that were vital to Romney’s strategy (particularly in the South).
It was possible to chalk up Romney’s ’08 evangelical issues to the presence of Huckabee, a Baptist preacher. But now that he’s regularly getting crushed by Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, the depths of Romney’s evangelical problem have come into focus. The question is what, exactly, it is that makes him so objectionable to Christian conservatives.
The most popular theory is that Romney’s Mormon faith is the culprit. Mormons tend to think of their religion as compatible with Christianity, but this view is strongly rejected by most evangelical Christians. A survey of Protestant pastors last year found that 75 percent of them don’t believe that Mormons are Christians, and a recent Pew poll found that only 35 percent of white evangelical Republicans voters think that Mormons are Christians.
Suspicion of Mormonism seems particularly pronounced among Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, and occasionally evangelical leaders will give voice to this, as Robert Jeffress, a Baptist pastor from Texas, did last fall when he called Mormonism a “theological cult.” Jeffress, who stressed that he would still back Romney over Barack Obama in the fall, expressed his refusal to support Romney in the primaries this way:
But to those of us who are evangelicals, when all other things are equal, we prefer competent Christians to competent non-Christians who may be good, moral people like Mitt Romney.
Another theory, though, holds that Mormonism is a red herring, and that evangelical doubts about Romney are rooted in his culturally liberal past. To support this case, Michael Tesler points to data showing that support for Romney among evangelicals decreases in relation to how conservative those evangelicals voters are on moral issues.
The idea is that evangelicals are much more likely to base their votes on cultural issues, and thus to question the sincerity of Romney’s late-in-life conversion to their cause. By contrast, his two main opponents, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, can boast of long-standing public support for the Christian right’s agenda. If this is the source of Romney’s evangelical struggle, then we could expect a different, more consistently anti-abortion and anti-gay rights Mormon candidate in the same position Romney now is to be winning evangelical voters and Southern states with ease.
The good news for Romney is that his evangelical problem probably won’t matter in the fall. No matter what the explanation for it is, conservative evangelicals are fanatically opposed to Obama and likely to vote for any Republican candidate running against him. The bad news is that their primary season resistance to him has stretched the nominating process out, significantly lengthening the amount of time that Romney has to spend staking out very conservative positions that could haunt him with swing voters in the fall.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- 6 things you need to know about dark money groups
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.