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Poll: Among religious voters, Mitt Romney performs best among white evangelicals

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25 2012 1:41 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative convention in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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A breakdown of the religious demographics of a national presidential poll has GOP nominee Mitt Romney performing best among white evangelicals.

That was the group that political pundits were saying he would have a tough time attracting and that would derail his hopes of the Republican nomination. While they did give him fits in the primary, they now appear to be on board.

The latest Pew Research Center poll shows Romney with a commanding 74 percent support rate among white evangelical Protestant voters, compared to President Barack Obama's 19 percent. Obama had the support of 95 percent of black Protestant voters, according to the poll.

Evangelical writers watching the race made note of Romney's performance among that group, which is similar for the past two GOP candidates, John McCain and George W. Bush, indicating that evangelicals remain the base of the Republican Party.

"Despite a history of Republican voting, some political pontificators predicted that evangelicals would be apprehensive about an LDS candidate," wrote Tobin Grant for Christianity Today. "The picture of evangelicals as religious partisans has itself proven to be little more than caricature and stereotype."

Jonathan Merritt noted in his analysis of poll results posted on the Religion News Service that another poll by the Public Religion Research Institute showed similar results.

"The rift seems to be not among evangelical voters but among some old-guard evangelical leaders," Merritt concluded. "Who can forget Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’ comments that Romney was a part of a 'theological cult' at the 2011 Values Voter Summit? And then there was the January summit of more than 150 high-powered evangelical leaders in Texas to determine which candidate should receive their collective blessing."

Merritt quoted PRRI's chief executive Robert Jones, whose polling found “evangelicals say they want a presidential candidate who shares their religious beliefs, and they still hold that Romney’s religion is different from their own. And yet as early as May 2012, shortly after it became clear that Romney was the presumptive nominee, Romney held a 45-point lead over Obama" among evangelicals.

"We’ve been told that evangelicals were so skeptical of Romney’s Mormon faith they might not be able to pull the lever for him in the voting booth. But according to Jones’ research, as more white evangelical voters have realized that he is Mormon, his favorability among them has actually risen."

Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, said the support among white evangelicals may not be enough for Romney to pull off the upset. The poll had Obama leading Romney among all voters by 8 percentage points.

"Of course, what the survey can't tell us is what the evangelical turnout will be. If a lot of evangelicals decide not to get (out) and vote, then it's bad news for Romney in states like Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia."

Silk looked at how Romney and Obama perform among other religious groups in the Pew poll and compared it to 2008.

Obama improves 1 percentage point among mainline Protestants from 2008 but drops 2 percentage points among Protestants in general. Among Catholics the president performs the same as he did in 2008, capturing 54 percent support.

Meanwhile, Romney (50 percent) fares worse than McCain (54 percent) did among Protestants and among Catholics, a group from which Romney captures just 39 percent support compared to McCain's 45 percent four years ago.

"Indeed ... it looks like the president will outperform himself with Catholics this time around," Silk wrote. "Evidently that Fortnight for Freedom from Contraception didn't have much of an impact."

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