What’s going on with evangelical and Catholic GOP voters
The political buzz this week has focused on Mitt Romney’s victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, following his incredibly close win in last week’s Iowa caucuses. Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican candidate in modern history to win both Iowa and New Hampshire’s nominating contests, fueling widespread speculation that the GOP nomination is solidly within his grasp.
Evangelical voters, an oft-discussed constituency in the Iowa caucuses (who went largely for Rick Santorum last week), are also part of the mix in the New Hampshire primary. The overall New Hampshire voter base tends to be more moderate than in Iowa and Santorum fared significantly worse in New Hampshire, garnering just over 9% of the vote. Romney handily won in New Hampshire and even did well among evangelical voters, who have been perceived as less supportive of his candidacy either for theological or ideological reasons. (Romney’s performance among evangelical voters in New Hampshire was comparable to Santorum’s performance among evangelicals in Iowa.)
Catholic Republican primary voters in New Hampshire also voted for Romney; 45% of Catholic primary voters supported Mitt Romney on Tuesday. Despite Santorum’s Catholicism, he didn’t manage to pick up significant Catholic support from Romney, even given his momentum coming out of Iowa and his far-right views on social issues. As David Gibson at Religion News Service hypothesizes, Santorum may actually be the most “evangelical” candidate in his rhetoric and beliefs, even though he’s a practicing Catholic. Gibson writes:
Santorum’s religious rhetoric is just as important in cultivating his evangelical appeal, and that is something new for Catholic politicians.
He has “an evangelical style,” [Deal] Hudson notes, which can be seen in his references to home-schooling his children, his support for teaching creationism in public schools, and his regular testimony about his personal relationship with Jesus. (Santorum adds that the U.S. needs to have “a Jesus candidate.”)
Santorum seems like an appealing choice to socially and theologically conservative evangelical voters who find Romney unpalatable. According to Elizabeth Dias at TIME and other reports, some evangelicals are rallying this weekend to try to come to a consensus about which candidate to back in an attempt to unseat Romney as the GOP front-runner, and Santorum is their most likely pick.
Now, all eyes turn to South Carolina, where the nation’s third Republican primary contest will happen on January 21. As Tobin Grant at Christianity Today puts it,
Because evangelicals made up only one-quarter of the primary voters in New Hampshire, their influence is smaller than in Iowa or in this Saturday’s primary in South Carolina. Still, if Romney had done as poorly with evangelicals as he did in Iowa, his margin of victory could have slipped into the single digits. This weekend, a strong showing among evangelicals could mean the difference between a win or a loss in South Carolina.
Romney is polling better in South Carolina than he ever has before, and having the endorsement of popular Tea Party governor Nikki Haley can’t hurt. The newest TIME/CNN/ORC poll has Romney leading but shows a significant surge from Santorum. If Romney wins by a significant margin, it seems very unlikely any other Republican candidates can continue to challenge him for the nomination. If Santorum manages to pull off an upset though, it could keep things interesting in the ongoing GOP primary fight. We’ll be watching!