While he technically placed second in last night’s Iowa caucus, former Sen. Rick Santorum surprised many by his strong finish, a mere 8 votes behind long-time front-runner Gov. Mitt Romney. One reason for Santorum’s surge was Evangelical Christian support for this stridently right-wing Roman Catholic. Some analysis from around the Web:
Evangelicals wavered throughout the campaign, pushing each of them to the top of the pre-election points at one point or another. Three factors, though, eventually enabled Santorum to emerge from the pack and unite a substantial number of evangelical voters behind him.
Many commentators did not see distinctions between the candidates, but evangelical caucus goers sure did. Of the 30 percent of evangelicals who cited being a true conservative as the most important candidate quality in their vote, 44 percent supported Santorum. Perry, Gingrich, and Bachman only received 26 percent support from evangelicals combined.
On the important question of abortion, 19 percent of evangelicals cited it as the most important issue in their vote. Of those that did, a whopping 60 percent backed Santorum, compared to only 12 percent for Perry, 9 percent for Gingrich, and 8 percent for Bachmann.
Santorum garnered 34% of evangelical caucus-goers, according to entrance polls, the libertarian Ron Paul garnered 19%, while Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich each took 14% of that vote and Rick Perry got 13%. Michele Bachmann won 6% of evangelical caucus-goers.
The entrance polls seem to reflect an evangelical consensus against Romney, who won a plurality of Iowa’s nonevangelical caucus-goers, but it also reflects an evangelical disagreement over the best alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, considered to be the establishment candidate and the national front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, noted that Romney did worse among Iowa evangelicals on Tuesday night than he did as a presidential candidate four years ago, when he won 19% of evangelical Iowans.
Some evangelicals oppose Romney because of his Mormon faith, while others distrust him because of his past social liberalism on issues such as abortion, though Romney says he is now against abortion.
Santorum emerged victorious on Tuesday, winning support from 30 percent of evangelical voters, who themselves made up 57 percent of caucus-goers. (Entrance polls did not identify Catholic voters, but Santorum swept most of the counties in western Iowa, which is heavily Catholic.)
His embrace by socially conservative voters was not primarily the result of old-fashioned retail politics -- Santorum held hundreds of events in Iowa without his poll numbers inching much above the low single digits. Nor was it a matter of fortuitous timing, as virtually the only candidate who had not yet been the flavor-of-the-month.
Instead, Santorum won the hearts of social conservatives by being their favorite from the start. Back in October, I wrote a column noting that Santorum -- a conservative Catholic -- was the obvious choice for purist social conservatives, and quoting political scientist Mark Rozell: "If I'm a conservative non-compromising Catholic, then I probably like Rick Santorum and want to give him support in order to make a statement." As I noted at the time, very few Catholic voters seemed interested in using their vote to make a statement in 2012. They were turning away from the earnest, intense Santorum in favor of more electable options.
Up next is the primary in New Hampshire, the least-religious state in the nation. Evangelical Christians do not have a strong presence there, and Romney is poised to claim over 40% of the overall vote. The real fight will be for second place and the media attention that will propel that person into South Carolina’s primary later this month. But given the libertarian viewpoints of many Granite State Republican voters, it is difficult to imagine Santorum as a viable second choice (though his national campaign chair is a New Hampshire citizen). The Daily Beast notes that before the caucus last night,
Santorum was the choice of only 5 percent of the vote. He has had no money to run paid advertisements, and now he can count on his rivals to come after him with big guns.
Unless Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann and Paul throw their support behind Santorum, which will not happen anytime soon, Romney’s path to victory remains clear.