The Cincinnati Enquirer, Jeff Swinger
Supporters take photos of Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum while he speaks at a rally at the Crowne Plaza in Blue Ash, Ohio on Saturday, March 3, 2012.

With Ohio looming as the lynchpin of Super Tuesday outcomes, a new Rasmussen poll sheds light into what GOP voters in the Buckeye state are thinking. A peek inside the numbers shows that a surprising number of Ohio voters would choose ideological alignment over better odds against President Barack Obama in November.

For starters, Ohio voters reflect the by now familiar pattern of strong evangelical resistance to Mitt Romney, according to a Rasmussen poll conducted Thursday. Overall, Rick Santorum holds a statistically insignificant 33 percent to 31 lead over Romney, with Newt Gingrich trailing at 15 percent.

As in Michigan, the label “very conservative” seems to be a perfect overlap for “evangelical.” Santorum leads the former group 45 percent to 25 percent, and the latter 43 percent to 24 percent.

Asked who would be the “stronger candidate” against Barack Obama, “very conservative” Ohio voters chose Romney 38 percent to 34 percent, while “somewhat conservatives” tilted more heavily, 49 percent to 19 percent. Again, evangelicals mirrored very conservatives, calling Romney stronger by 39 percent to 31 percent.

Adherents of the two candidates separate sharply on what matters most, however. Fifty-seven percent of Santorum supporters (and 53 percent of evangelicals) felt that “representing GOP values” was more important than having the “best chance to beat Barack Obama.” In contrast, 53 percent of mainline Protestants and 55 percent of Catholics chose electability over ideological alignment, as did 70 percent of Romney supporters.

This is one time when the reader might wish that polls were more uniform. A Survey USA poll taken in Washington state this week asked, “How confident are you that Republicans will defeat President Obama in November.” The results, if typical, are intriguing. Fifty-two percent of “very conservative” voters were “very” confident of victory. Only 35 percent of conservative voters and 30 percent of moderate GOP voters felt the same.

Given historical patterns, current poll standings, the enormous financial advantage the president enjoys and the chaos that is the GOP nomination battle, such confidence seems quite absurd. Intrade, the prediction market where savvy analysts put real money on the line, puts Obama’s reelection chances right now at 60 percent. Not overwhelming, but not bad either.

If the Survey USA questions were to be replicated elsewhere, it could go a long way toward explaining this paradox: why, in what is bound to be a very tight November election, are hardcore conservatives and evangelicals voting in favor of ideology over winning?

The usual explanation is that they view the less aligned candidate as being so far off the reservation that there is no difference worth noting between him and the other party’s nominee. But other possibilities suggest themselves — including resignation, a feeling that the election will be lost anyway and it's better to fight for the soul of the party than to compromise for no gain.

The flip side of resignation is confidence, i.e. that the election is likely to be won regardless, and preemptive compromise is opportunity lost. The Washington Survey USA voter confidence question suggests this last possibility.

Another possibility is that wildly optimistic GOP voters are in fact mainly evangelicals. If so, this odd perspective may results from a forced resolution of cognitive dissonance. That is to say, they are trying to reconcile an impulse to vote against Romney on religious grounds with the urgency of winning in November.

Other notables from Rasmussen Ohio poll …

Conventional wisdom that Gingrich and Santorum were splitting the conservative vote against Romney can now be put to rest. In the two-way race, Rasmussen shows a tie, with both Santorum and Romney at 43 percent.

In addition to religion, Romney continues to struggle with the socio-economic divide. He loses to Santorum by 8 points in the $20K-$40K bracket, by 2 points from $40K to $60K, and then pulls ahead after $75K.

Romney wins easily with the highly reliable 65+ age bracket, 53 percent to 37 percent in a two-way race. Romney also wins in the under $20K income bracket, an anomaly which suggests that the elderly are folded in at this economic level.

The Ohio poll confirms that Ron Paul is not really running for the GOP nomination, at least as reflected in his base. 84 percent of Santorum voters will vote for the eventual GOP nominee in November, as will 89 percent of both Gingrich and Romney supporters. Only 43 percent of Paul supporters say the same.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].