Analysis: Romney struggling to attract evangelicals

Even though former governor of Massachusetts is most electable candidate in Republican race he has so far been incapable of attracting evangelical conservatives.

Mitt Romney 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Mitt Romney 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
DES MOINES, IOWA – Joel Jollymore rose from his metal-folding chair in the Cattell Elementary School gym Tuesday night to plead with neighbors to listen to their conscience when casting their ballot in the Republican caucus.
“We’re too worried about who’s going to get elected,” the Rick Santorum supporter told the audience who had assembled to participate in the nation’s first vote for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “We need to follow principle.”
RELATED:Jewish Democrats doubt Republicans’ Israel supportRepublicans talk tough on Iran before Iowa caucusHis words prompted fellow caucus-goer Mark Judisch, who backed Mitt Romney, to speak up. Clutching a brown cowboy hat in his hand, he noted his agreement with Jollymore on many points of policy. But he argued, “If you want to vote for a man who isn’t electable, we end up with zero.”
That’s an argument Mitt Romney has been counting on, and it clearly helped him eke out a victory of eight votes in Iowa on Tuesday night.
According to polls taken of Iowans as they entered their caucus stations, 48% of those who said defeating Obama was their most important consideration in choosing a candidate backed Romney – more than twice as much as any of his competitors.
It’s a theme Romney’s campaign and surrogates have touched on repeatedly.
On Tuesday morning, at the last public event he held before the caucuses, South Dakota Senator John Thume introduced the candidate by stressing his skills, knowledge and experience, asking the crowd: “Who can win the election this year and defeat Obama?” But the concept that Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, is the most electable candidate overlooks the fact that he has so far been incapable of attracting evangelical conservatives, let alone energizing them to knock on doors and turn out the vote.
Motivating the party base is a crucial part of winning the presidency, especially in swing states like Iowa.
Romney edged out Santorum by the slimmest of margins after the former Pennsylvania senator resuscitated his down-for-the-count campaign to emerge in the last two weeks as the top recipient of evangelical backing.
“Obviously the evangelicals prefer a candidate other than Romney. They’ve picked half a dozen of them,” University of Virginia politics expert Larry Sabato said, referring to the handful of other Republican candidates who were at one time front-runners in the Iowa contest before finally settling on Santorum.
Romney couldn’t muster more than 25 percent of the vote Tuesday, the same amount as Santorum, who bested his opponent by margins of 32 to 14 among evangelicals, 35 to 14 among strong conservatives and 29 to 19 among Tea Party supporters.
None of the numbers diminish the importance of the victory for Romney, which makes him the most likely candidate to garner the Republican nomination – in part because even in a state with a high evangelical population he still came out on top, and without having devoted a tremendous amount of time or effort to a place he didn’t expect to win.
The results help build a narrative of strength and inevitability as he heads to New Hampshire, where polls put him ahead of his competitors by double digits in many cases. Winning the first-in-the-nation primary there next Tuesday – combined with the tremendous advantage in money and national organization he enjoys – make it hard to see a path to victory for someone else barring a last-minute drop-in by a new popular face.
And the Republican establishment, which plays a sizable role in anointing the party nominee, can also be seen rallying around him. He has endorsements from George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, not to mention the donations of a number of heavy hitters.
Even his 2008 rival, John McCain, a man with whom he’s enjoyed frosty relations, is set to endorse him Wednesday afternoon in New Hampshire.
But while McCain’s endorsement should certainly help him in New Hampshire, which views McCain as a favorite son and twice launched him into national contention for the presidency, it should also prove a cautionary note.
McCain lost Iowa last time around, and while his win days later in New Hampshire propelled him to capture the Republican nomination, in a way he never recovered what he lost in the cornfields around Ames and Des Moines to 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee.
McCain was never able to energize the evangelical Christian vote. A candidate who didn’t focus on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, even though he opposed both, and who rarely talked about his Christian faith, just wasn’t attractive to evangelicals.
While appealing to independents is crucial for gaining the presidency – and Romney’s business background, relative moderation and success winning as a GOP candidate in Democrat-heavy Massachusetts does – so is turning out the base.
Successful candidates, like Bush and Barack Obama, do both.
“McCain did not fire up his base. Obama fired up his, and he also attracted voters in the middle,” according to David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
McCain in the end resorted to tapping Sarah Palin as his nominee to satisfy conservative Christians, a move that promptly alienated many independents.
“They’re a big part of the base of the Republican party,” Yepsen said of evangelicals.
They made up 57% of caucusgoers on Tuesday night, about the same as in 2008, and are estimated to comprise upwards of 25% of the American population.
He said they object to Romney’s former acceptance of abortion and same gay-rights positions, and many also have trouble with his Mormonism.
“Romney’s got to find a way to get the Republican base fired up about him,” Yepsen said.
“The Republicans can’t live without them,” Sabato said of evangelicals, suggesting that Romney could attempt to get some of their support by emphasizing his foreign-policy positions.
He has offered staunch support for Israel and talked tough on Iran and its nuclear threat.
“It will be effective with Republicans,” he said of those positions.
But he contended that Romney’s best argument comes down to a single sentence: “I am a much better choice for you than Obama.”
Yepsen predicted that even if most evangelical Christians don’t support Romney at this point, they would come around if Romney was the nominee.
“They won’t be enthusiastic about it. But they hate Obama so much they’ll vote for Romney,” he said.
But that wasn’t the case at Cattell Elementary School.
After Judisch had his say, Chuck Pickett stood up to make a last appeal for Santorum.
“We can make him electable by sending him on to New Hampshire,” he declared.
Santorum lost the precinct ballot to Ron Paul, six to 12. Romney got just one vote.