There was considerable speculation during the 2012 primaries about the strength of support for Mitt Romney among white evangelical Protestants. A Pew Research Center analysis of exit poll data finds that white evangelical Protestants voted for Romney with as much enthusiasm as his other supporters did. In addition, white evangelical Protestants voted as heavily for Romney as they did for the GOP candidates in 2008 and 2004, and they made up about the same share of the electorate as they did in the two previous elections.
Overall, six-in-ten Romney voters said they strongly favored the GOP nominee, while about four-in-ten either said they had some “reservations” about him (28%) or described their vote for him primarily as a vote against Barack Obama (10%).
Among white evangelical Protestants who voted for Romney, the proportions are similar: 62% strongly favored him, 28% had some reservations, and 9% said they cast their ballots primarily against Obama.1
The same pattern was found among other religious groups who voted for Romney, with one exception. Mormons who voted for Romney were more inclined to say they strongly favored him (84%); just 14% said they had some reservations about Romney, and 2% said their choice was primarily against Obama.
The analysis finds that voter enthusiasm was stronger for Obama than for Romney. Overall, seven-in-ten Obama voters said they strongly favored the president, two-in-ten said they had some reservations about him, and 8% described their vote as primarily against Romney.
Black Protestants who voted for Obama were more likely than his other supporters to say they strongly favored him (87%). Just 8% of this group said they had reservations about Obama, and 4% said their vote was primarily against Romney. White Catholics voting for Obama were less enthusiastic in their support: 58% strongly favored Obama, 31% said they had reservations about him, and 7% said their vote primarily reflected their dislike for Romney.
While most white evangelical Protestant voters backed the GOP nominee, there is little evidence that those who cast their ballots for Obama were voting primarily against Romney. A majority of white evangelical Protestants who voted for Obama (63%) said they strongly favored him, 21% said they had reservations about him, and 15% described their vote as primarily against Romney. This pattern is not significantly different from that of most other religious groups voting for Obama in 2012.
How White Evangelical Protestants Voted
Another way to gauge voter enthusiasm for Romney’s candidacy is to compare his support with that for the GOP candidates in the 2008 and 2004 elections. Analysis of exit poll data from prior elections shows that, nationwide, voter support for Romney among white evangelical Protestants was the same as for George W. Bush in 2004 (79% for both GOP candidates). And Romney won more of the white evangelical Protestant vote than John McCain did in 2008 (73%).2
Much of the 2012 campaign – from advertising buys to get-out-the-vote efforts – was focused on a handful of key battleground states. This made enthusiasm for the 2012 GOP nominee among white evangelical Protestants and other groups important at the state as well as the national level. Pew Research Center analysis of state exit polls shows a mixed portrait across the handful of states for which data is available. There is no clear pattern of a smaller vote margin for the GOP candidate relative to 2008 or 2004.3
Romney’s margin of support among white evangelical Protestants was about the same as McCain’s in 2008 in five of the six states where comparisons are possible. The exception was Michigan, where Romney’s margin of support (55 points) was higher than McCain’s in 2008 (34 points). In Wisconsin, Romney’s vote margin may appear to be somewhat better among white evangelicals than it was in 2008, but the differences in the vote margin across years are not statistically significant. And in two states – Ohio and Nevada – the pattern goes in the opposite direction, with Romney appearing to garner a smaller share of the white evangelical Protestant vote than McCain did in 2008; but here, too, the differences in vote margin across years are not statistically significant.
Similarly, support among white evangelical Protestants for Romney in 2012 was about the same as for Bush in 2004 in the four states where comparisons are possible. Romney’s margin of support among white evangelical Protestant voters appears somewhat smaller than Bush’s in North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa, but those differences are not statistically significant. The pattern is reversed in Michigan, but again, differences in vote margin across years are not statistically significant.
Share of the Electorate
Nationwide, the religious composition of the 2012 electorate closely resembles recent elections. While there are signs that both the white Protestant share and the white Catholic share of the electorate have been gradually declining over the past decade, the white evangelical Protestant share of the national electorate has been roughly the same over the past three presidential elections (23% in 2012 and 2008, 21% in 2004).
Likewise, there is no clear pattern of a decline in the white evangelical Protestant share of the electorate across states. White evangelical Protestants comprised a roughly equal or larger share of the 2012 state electorate in six of the seven states where data was available. In Iowa, white evangelical Protestants made up 32% of the electorate in 2012, up from 26% in 2008 and 27% in 2004. In just one state, Wisconsin, did white evangelicals comprise a smaller share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in 2008 (17% vs. 21%).
1 The National Election Pool exit polls include voters who identify as “Mormon” and “other Christian” in the Protestant category. (return to text)
3 Exit poll data by religious group is not available in all states. In some states the sample of white evangelical Protestants is too small for separate analysis; in others, religion questions were not asked on the exit poll, and in some places no state-level exit poll was conducted. (return to text)
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