Will Evangelicals Doom Romney?

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Elaine Thompson / AP

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at Microsoft headquarters on Oct. 13, 2011, in Redmond, Washington.

Mitt Romney 2.0 is an impressive candidate. While other Republicans have moved up and down in the polls, he has held the position of frontrunner for most of the past year and a half. Compared with the last presidential race, he’s looser and more sure of himself. Heck, during the Tuesday’s debate in New Hampshire, Romney was feeling confident enough to crack a joke at the expense of Charlie Rose. And it was funny! The former governor may not inspire passion in voters, but he exudes competence, which may be the more valuable trait in this election when the economy is faltering and Obama is so weak.

Yet, for all his strengths, Romney can’t seem to broaden his appeal beyond a quarter of the Republican electorate. Despite his commanding debate performances and general election promise, his support in primary polls has rarely surpassed 26%, which is close to where he peaked in 2008. He does not pick up new backers when support for opponents like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann fades. So, what’s going on?

It’s the evangelicals, stupid.

Religious conservatives have always harbored suspicions about where Mitt Romney’s true feelings lie on social issues after he ran to the left in Massachusetts, then far to the right in 2008, and now seems to be settling somewhere closer to center-right. The bigger problem for Romney is that this ideological and characterological problem is overlaid on a theological one. As we were reminded by an unusually public statement by Pastor Robert Jeffress at the recent Values Voters Summit, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians do not consider Mormons to be Christians.

That belief can influence the way evangelicals vote. Most Americans (68%) say a Mormon candidate’s faith makes no difference to them. But in a Pew Research survey last spring, 31% of evangelical Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. Only 15% of non-evangelical Republicans felt the same way. Those numbers are unchanged from 2007, when Romney first ran for the GOP nomination.

Evangelical aversion to Mormons wouldn’t be such a problem for Romney if he could build a winning coalition without them. But historically, that’s been hard to do in GOP primaries. Sixty percent of voters in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary in 2008 were evangelicals. And Tea Party supporters, who are among the most energized in this campaign season, overwhelmingly identify themselves as “Christian conservatives”, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

In 2009, religion researchers John Green and Mark Silk ran a simulation to predict how Romney would have performed in the 2008 primaries if evangelicals had simply voted the same way as other Republicans. The result of their simulation? Romney would have won across the South, including the key state of Florida, and he would have even taken Iowa. In other words, he would have been the nominee.

Romney’s shifting ideological profile hasn’t done much to allay evangelical concerns about Mormonism. As Green and Silk put it in their analysis, “Just as people who change positions are deemed untrustworthy because they claim to be something they’re not, so, in evangelical eyes, Mormons claim to be something they’re not; namely, Christians.” In December 2007, Romney gave a speech in Texas intended to put to rest questions about his faith. But his remarks, which mentioned his belief in Jesus Christ and emphasized the parts of his faith that conform with mainstream Christianity, only made things worse for those evangelical Christians who believed he was just being slippery.

A poll conducted earlier this month by the Barna Group underscored evangelical skepticism about Romney’s character. Pollsters asked Americans to rate Obama, Romney and Perry on character traits like leadership, honesty, intelligence and philosophy of government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, evangelicals rated Perry highest in all categories. But they also rated Obama higher than Romney in every category except for leadership.

Even so, Romney and evangelicals are not irreconcilable. A new TIME poll shows him outperforming Perry with that group in a general election matchup against President Obama. Bryan Fischer, an outspoken critic of Mormonism who spoke at the Values Voters Summit, told reporters afterward that “If the choice was between Barack Obama and the other guy, I’d vote for the other guy.” And in a Bloggingheads conversation last month, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told me that evangelicals are fired-up to remove Obama from the White House. “I have never seen the grassroots of evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism more energized than they are right now,” Land said. “I’ve heard on more than one occasion, pastors say to me, Richard, this is the most important election in America since 1860.”

If Romney can win the Republican primary, most evangelical Christians will vote for him in the general election. But he’s not the nominee yet, and both his opponents and conservative evangelical activists intend to do everything in their power to stop him. After all, they’ve done it before.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.