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Religion continues to splinter GOP, despite Nevada results

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 8:03 p.m. MST

LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney's Nevada win Saturday night marks the first state in which the Republican presidential hopeful reached the magic 50 percent target. His success is significant in that it runs across all demographics, including religion.

The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life highlights the results from the CNN entrance polls. As expected, 88 percent of the Mormon vote went to Romney, and with 25 percent of the voters Saturday night saying they were Mormon, the impact is quite large.

To put it in perspective, if that 25 percent of the vote had voted like white Protestants, Romney's total would have dropped to 39 percent, while Newt Gingrich's 21 percent would climb to 30 percent. Still a very impressive win, but not the magic 50.

The discount is significant because Nevada is a caucus state where 7.5 percent of the population is LDS. Most of those are Republican, and they turned out in force in a system that favors the motivated voter and often does not reflect the larger population.

But winning 48 percent of the Catholics and 43 percent of the white evangelicals are high water marks for Romney thus far in the campaign. Romney scored an impressive win even discounting the Mormon vote, possibly a tribute to the greater level of familiarity that Western voters have with Mormon neighbors.

Meanwhile a national ABC/Washington Post poll shows Romney climbing back in the lead, but with significant weaknesses remaining at the very core of the base, including fractures on the religion front:

"Over four in 10 Republicans say a candidate's religious beliefs matter to them, and Romney wins only 24 percent support among this group, compared with 50 percent among those who say religion matters less. Both Gingrich and (Rick) Santorum perform twice as well among those who say a candidate's beliefs are important than other Republicans."

Romney must be concerned looking forward to a Bible Belt run on March 6, as he still garners only 26 percent of the white evangelicals, against 30 and 28 percent for Gingrich and Santorum, respectively.

Santorum's strength has Romney's strategists concerned, according to Zeke Miller at BuzzFeed. Miller notes that Romney has unleashed his surrogates on Santorum now that Gingrich has been somewhat neutered.

Romney is ahead in Colorado for Tuesday's caucus, but Minnesota also caucuses and Missouri holds a nonbinding primary. Santorum is leading in the former, while the latter appears to be a toss up, according to Public Policy Polling surveys.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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