A new poll [PDF] out from Public Policy Polling finds a close three-way split between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich for the votes of Alabama and Mississippi evangelicals in tomorrow’s primaries.
According to PPP’s statement on the poll, Romney has a chance of winning both states because even though he lags behind his competitors among the states’ most conservative voters, Gingrich and Santorum are splitting those voters, which could benefit Romney. For all the talk of Romney performing poorly among evangelicals, though, he’s really still in the race for their votes: Among Alabama evangelicals, who make up 68% of the electorate, Santorum (33%) has an indistinguishable advantage over Gingrich’s 32%, while Romney is drawing 28%. Romney’s supposed problem with evangelicals may not be fatal if he can make up the difference among the state’s other voters.
The poll didn’t ask these voters if they believe the Mormon Romney is a Christian, which would have been a telling and fascinating data point since evangelical anti-Mormonism is thought to be more pronounced in the South. But it did ask whether they believe President Obama is a Christian, and only 14% did, with 45% saying they believe he is a Muslim. These numbers are more pronounced among evangelicals, with only 9% of evangelical likely Republican voters in Alabama believing the president is a Christian. Fifty percent—half of all the voters in the Alabama GOP primary—believe the president is a Muslim.
The numbers are similar in Mississippi, where 70% of likely GOP voters identified as evangelical. Like in Alabama, where only 25% identified as tea partiers, only 24% of Mississippi voters identified as tea partiers. Again, the candidates are splitting the evangelical vote with Gingrich showing a slight advantage with 33% to Romney’s 28%, and Santorum’s 29%.
Of all the respondents, only 12% believe President Obama is a Christian, and 52% believe he is a Muslim. These numbers, like in Alabama, are more pronounced among evangelicals: only 9% of evangelicals in Mississippi believe the president is a Christian, and 54% believe he is a Muslim.
The real question here is why evangelicals believe this false and debunked conspiracy theory that the Christian president is a Muslim. I think the question of whether he is a Christian is a little less telling since they problably don’t think he’s a “bible-believing” or “real” Christian. But that they actually believe he is a Muslim instead (rather than merely an insufficiently pious Christian) is the alarming story here. Evangelicals are more likely to believe this falsehood than non-evangelicals. What—or who—has led them to believe this?
Nobody thinks Obama will win Alabama and Mississippi in November. But for Romney’s Republican adversaries who claim he’s weak in the South, I don’t think this poll helps their argument much. Obviously we’d know more about Republican voter attitudes, and particularly their enthusiasm come November if Romney is the nominee, if we knew more about their views of his Mormonism. But even without that information, you could conclude that, if about a third of evangelicals are fine with voting for Romney in the primary, where only 9% of them think Obama is a Christian, that Romney may not have an enthusiasm problem versus Obama.
Romney’s problem then, might not be with his base, but with the rest of the electorate to whom he will have to explain how such a big chunk of his party’s base has been saturated in anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
More data from the poll after the jump.
On other issues, 60% of respondents in Alabama do not believe in evolution; that number jumps to 74% among evangelicals. Twenty one percent of all respondents believe interracial marriage should be illegal; 24% of evangelicals did.
Sixty-six percent of respondents in Mississippi do not believe in evolution; among evangelicals that number jumped to 74%. Of all the respondents, 29% believe interracial marriage should be illegal; among evangelicals that number was 33%.