Romney Faring Better With Evangelicals… Or Just Worse With All Others?

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.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.