This week’s primaries in Mississippi and Alabama added an interesting statistical wrinkle to the generally dismal storyline about Mitt Romney’s fate in the South: despite consistent prognostication that the candidate would fare especially poorly among Southern evangelicals due to his Mormonism, the Romney favorability gap between born-again Christian voters and other Republicans seems to be closing.
In Mississippi, according to Pew Forum data, about 29% of evangelicals voted for Romney, compared to 33% of all other voters. That’s a 4% favorability gap, the lowest in any primary contest except Virginia (a statistical outlier due to Santorum and Gingrich’s failure to qualify) and Vermont (where Romney’s regional ties and a strong turnout of non-religious voters for Paul meant that Romney scored equally among evangelical and non-evangelical voters.)
Back in January, in Iowa (according to Pew) the favorability gap for Romney stood at 24%: only 14% of born-again Christians selected Romney, compared to 38% of non-evangelicals.
In Florida, the favorability gap was 18%.
In Ohio, it was 14%.
In Alabama, it was 7%.
And in Mississippi, where Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum battled to a nearly three-way split, the favorability gap was down to 4%.
So what’s happening?
Perhaps reticence about or antipathy towards Mormonism is more broadly distributed among Southern Republicans, including mainline Christians, non-Christians, and the non-religious.
Perhaps social conservatism—another front on which Romney tends to fare poorly—is also more broadly distributed.
Perhaps factors like economic class and region need to play a stronger role in analyses of evangelical voter behavior.
Perhaps it’s simply that the long and overwhelmingly negative Republican primary is driving Romney’s favorability down, even among non-evangelical voters.
But with non-evangelicals and evangelicals in Mississippi delivering nearly the same proportion of Romney votes, it may be time to re-tune the broadest narratives about religion in the 2012 race.