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Mitt Romney won white evangelicals, but struggled with Latino Catholics

Crowd members hold up a sign reading "vote" as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the Orlando Sanford International Airport, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.
Crowd members hold up a sign reading "vote" as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the Orlando Sanford International Airport, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney won the religious voters he expected to win last Tuesday, but there just weren't enough of them. Romney ran well with white Catholics, and surprisingly well with white evangelicals, according to exit polls by the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life.

Romney's 59-40 win among white Catholics matched his lead among white voters generally. Hispanic Catholics, meanwhile, went 75 percent for President Barack Obama. Overall, Obama won Catholics by the same 50-to-48 percentage he won the overall popular vote.

The vote was racially polarized, with Romney heavily dependent on a strong white turnout that did not materialize, while Obama counted on a surge of Latino and black voters that returned huge margins in each.

While race and ethnicity were greater factors than religion in explaining the outcome, Catholics who attend church weekly did go 57-42 percent for Romney regardless of race, while those who attend less often flipped by the same margin to Obama.

Black protestants, not surprisingly, went 95 percent for Obama, while Romney won white evangelicals by the essentially the same percentage (79 percent) that he won Mormons (78 percent).

There was some question of whether evangelicals would turn out in force, given their long-standing ambivalence about voting for a Mormon. Suspicions were heightened when exit polls showed a sharp dip in the white vote compared to 2008, not just in relative terms, but in absolute numbers.

As Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics noted, "almost 7 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. This isn't readily explainable by demographic shifts either; although whites are declining as a share of the voting-age population, their raw numbers are not."

Trende wrote that his first instinct was to look at the evangelical vote, but he found that this does not account for the dip. In an email exchange on Friday, Trende confirmed that even with vote totals slowly dribbling in, his analysis of the missing white vote still holds.

White evangelicals, however, do not appear to be the culprits. They comprised 26 percent of the electorate this year, compared to 23 percent in 2004, an equally narrow election with one of their own on the ticket, and they supported Romney in equal percentages to Bush.

That boost in the white evangelical vote share is noteworthy because in 2004 whites comprised 77 percent of voters, and that fell to 72 percent this year. For white evangelicals to up their vote share within a declining racial group suggests a strong surge.

"Many evangelical Republicans had skepticism about Romney," John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said at the Mormon Media Studies Symposium on Friday at BYU, "but they also very much disliked President Obama for a long list of reasons."

"Once Romney was going to be the Republican nominee, partisanship began to play a very important role," Green said. "The Romney campaign made overtures to evangelical leaders and evangelical leaders made overtures to the Romney campaign. Then evangelical leaders went out into their communities and said people should consider the more conservative candidate."

Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell echoed Green at the BYU symposium. "When I picked up The New York Times and saw a full-page ad from Billy Graham essentially endorsing Mitt Romney, albeit without using his name," Campbell said, "it was absolutely amazing in the history of evangelical Christians and Mormons."

As Trende noted in his article, the missing white vote seems to lie elsewhere.

Romney did make a dent in the heavily Democratic Jewish vote, capturing 30 percent of that ethnic bloc, which most observers attribute to the president's tense relationship with Israel. In 2004, George Bush captured 25 percent of the Jewish vote, but McCain managed only 21 percent in 2008.

With ethnicity woven so tightly into religious perspectives, a persistent theme in postmortem GOP analysis is the possibility of capturing more of the Latino Catholics.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argued in his weekly column for an immediate embrace of amnesty in an effort to win over Latinos. "The only part of this that is even partially true regards Hispanics. They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example)."

Others question this thesis, arguing that the socially conservative bona fides of the Latino voter are vastly overrated, and that economic equalitarianism is their driving concern.

Among the doubters is the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald. She noted in National Review a conversation she had with John Echeveste, founder of the oldest Latino marketing firm in Southern California.

"What Republicans mean by 'family values' and what Hispanics mean are two completely different things," Echeveste told Mac Donald. "We are a very compassionate people, we care about other people and understand that government has a role to play in helping people."

MacDonald went on to note that nearly "one-quarter of all Hispanics are poor in California, compared to a little over one-tenth of non-Hispanics. Nearly seven in 10 poor children in the state are Hispanic, and one in three Hispanic children is poor, compared to less than one in six non-Hispanic children."

All of this, MacDonald argues, plays heavily partisan politics, rendering the core Latino vote less available to a GOP centered on smaller government, regardless of any shared social values.

In a City Journal piece from earlier this year, MacDonald cited a recent poll that "asked California's Latino voters why they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party. The two top reasons were that the party favored only the rich and that Republicans were selfish and out for themselves; Republican positions on immigration law were cited less often."

A possible counter to MacDonald's argument lies in the 2004 exit polls, which showed Bush winning a very healthy 43 percent of the Latino vote, suggesting that under the right circumstances, much of that vote might be available to the GOP.