A Demographic Divide: Could Evangelicals Block Romney?

By Sean Trende - February 6, 2012

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Our adjusted r-square improves to .8. All the variables remain significant, and the variables point the way we’d expect. Romney’s predicted vote share is now within 10 points of his actual vote share in all but six counties. In other words, we have a pretty good model now.


The frustrating thing about regression analysis is that it is an incredibly powerful tool that yields limited results. All it tells us is the strength of correlations. You have to draw conclusions about the causal mechanisms at work yourself.

Regardless, we see that a large portion of the GOP fight can be explained very well using only demographic variables. This is what I believe Cost picked up on when he found that northern conservatives voted for Romney, while southern conservatives voted against him. In the north, the conservatives tend to be non-evangelical. In the south, they tend to be evangelical (in Florida, they’re split).

Why this is the case is open to interpretation. The simplest answer is anti-Mormon bias, but that seems a bit too easy. After all, the alternatives are a pair of Catholics. The other possibility -- and this is a problem with regression -- is that religion could be a stand-in for ideology, and that, regardless of self-identification, a self-described conservative evangelical Republican is significantly to the right of a self-described conservative who is non-evangelical. Or it could be some third possibility: Perhaps evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike in heavily evangelical counties vote against Romney for an additional reason.

The other interesting observation is Romney’s decreased vote share in African-American counties. Again, this is susceptible to many interpretations. It could be that those few African-Americans who vote in Republican primaries are simply voting like their white evangelical brethren. Or it could be that whites in heavily African-American communities are reacting to Newt Gingrich’s attacks on food stamps and such, just as Democrats imply.

The most interesting conclusion we can draw -- and this is pretty firm -- is that very little has changed over the past three contests. This is both good news and bad news for Romney. In the short term, it is very good news for him. If these trends continue, he should sweep the contests between now and Super Tuesday, with the possible exception of the Missouri primary. In fact, he should win majorities of the non-Ron Paul vote.

But after that, things get difficult. There are more southern and border state contests, with few heavily Mormon counties, and huge evangelical populations. If Romney can’t put the contest away by the end of this month, Santorum or Gingrich might have a chance to regain some momentum in March. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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