The story of evangelical antipathy to Mitt Romney, Mormon has faded over the past few weeks with the emergence of a sense that Romney's opposition is really a broad Conservative Coalition. Thus, recent PPP state polls show that Tea Partiers, the "very conservative," and evangelicals prefer Rick Santorum to Romney by roughly the same margins.
Take yesterday's Washington State survey, which has Santorum leading Romney 38 percent to 27 percent. The Santorum-Romney numbers for the three groups are 50-20 (Tea Partiers), 50-19 (very conservative), and 50-18 (evangelicals). So we can say that evangelicals are simply part of an undifferentiated right-wing Republican base that finds Romney too moderate for their tastes, right?
Not quite. Drill down and it's evident that evangelicals are significantly less supportive of Romney than the other two legs of the tripod. Where Tea Partiers view Romney favorably by a margin of 50-42 and the very conservative are evenly divided 45-46, evangelicals turn thumbs down, 38-49. That's a 16-point swing away from his overall favorability rating of 47-42. By comparison, Santorum's favorability margin among evangelicals is 14 points greater than among the GOP electorate as a whole.
What this means is that evangelicals are likely to be harder to move towards Romney than the rest of the Conservative Coalition. And in most states, GOP primary voters include a higher proportion of evangelicals than either Tea Partiers or the very conservative. In Washington State, the percentages are 50, 39, and 35 respectively: If evangelical preferences were the same as non-evangelical, Romney would be up by 10 points rather than down by 11. This is not to say that, should Romney be the nominee, evangelicals won't vote for him. But they will be the least enthusiastic part of the Republican base to do so.