Rick Santorum is Roman Catholic. This is not news: he is far from shy about his Catholicism. More generally, he is as outspoken about religious faith as any major presidential candidate who’s had success has ever been.
Santorum swept Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi last night. This is no small matter. Catholics don’t win GOP primaries often, and certainly not in the South, where evangelicals make up large percentages of the Republican electorate. Among yesterday’s voters, 74% in Alabama self-identified as evangelical, and 80% in Mississippi self-identified as evangelical.
I study religion and politics in America. I find it almost impossible to believe that Santorum would be winning Republican primaries in the South were his central rival for the nomination, Mitt Romney, not Mormon in religious faith.
Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints helped him to win primaries in Western states, where there are many Mormon voters. But in the South, the bulwark of the modern Republican Party, Romney’s Mormon faith is, at minimum, not helping. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of the beliefs of Mormons, and in Romney’s case this impression is compounded by his previous support for abortion and gay rights.
Alabama governor Robert Bentley — who yesterday said that he voted for Santorum while nonetheless declaring Romney the party’s likely nominee — said as much on Tuesday. When asked about Romney being Mormon, he said, “I think that’s a very subtle issue that probably – may be a problem in many states, not just in Alabama.”
Former Louisiana senator John Breaux minced no words Tuesday on MSNBC: “People in the South may think that President Obama is a Muslim, but they know that Gov. Romney is a Mormon and it makes them uncomfortable,” he said. “They feel like it’s sort of a cult, it’s not really a Christian religion … That’s the basic problem.”
The evangelical turnout in Alabama and Mississippi was among the highest in the Republican primary contest so far: the only two in a similar range have been Oklahoma and Tennessee on Super Tuesday — both of which Santorum also won comfortably. Here’s a Washington Post chart which showed the percent of Republican voters who were evangelicals, by state, before last night’s voting.
Among these states, Romney has yet to win a state in which more than 50% of Republican voters are evangelicals. In every state in which evangelicals made up less than 50% of turnout, Romney won. In every state in which evangelicals were more than 50% of turnout, Santorum or Newt Gingrich won. Nothing confusing about it.
Here’s why I think Romney’s Mormon faith is a factor: in both states that voted Tuesday, the final slate of polls showed Romney either winning or very close. In Alabama, he led by 1 point in each of the final two polls and Santorum was 2 and 5 points behind. In Mississippi Romney was up by 8 and trailed Gingrich by 2 in the final two polls, while Santorum was well back. In each state, Santorum far outperformed his polls. With the huge evangelical turnout, Romney finished third in Mississippi and it appears he will do the same in Alabama.
Maybe Santorum made a late surge that had nothing to do with his evangelical beliefs and Romney’s Mormon faith. Maybe Gingrich did the same thing in South Carolina in mid-January, where he came from double-digits behind. Maybe the same thing happened in Iowa, when Santorum came from near-death in the polls to nip Romney at the wire.
All of these comebacks are plausible, but in Florida in January and Michigan and Ohio in recent weeks where evangelicals were smaller parts of the GOP electorate, it was Romney who made the comeback on the strength of hammering Gingrich and Santorum with negative advertising. Romney and allies similarly massively outspent Santorum and allies in Alabama and Mississippi this past week.
When a candidate outperforms his polls and does so even though advertising spending is hugely arrayed against him, it suggests something unusual is happening. In this case, I see the an outcome that suggests citizens are telling pollsters that they’ll vote for Gingrich, but then step into the polling booth or caucus room and pull the lever for someone else. Voters in states with large evangelical populations did this in Iowa, in South Carolina, in Mississippi, and in Alabama.
Something is going on here, and it is not working to Romney’s benefit.