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What We Learned from Nevada

Cross-posted atPolitickerNJ

[Acknowledgements: Some of the data for this analysis was made available by NBC News, where I was an entrance poll analyst on caucus night.]

As I write this – more than 12 hours after the final caucus concluded – over one quarter of Nevada’s votes remain to be tallied. I’m guessing that Chumlee of “Pawn Stars” fame has been put in charge of the Clark County vote count operation.

Even so, we know the basic results from Saturday. And they have raised some new talking points among pundits. Are strong conservatives becoming more comfortable with Mitt Romney? And can we glean anything from these results about how he would fare in a general election?

Even though the final vote totals aren’t in, the entrance poll gives some insight on emerging trends that have an impact on front-runner Mitt Romney.

Conservatives and Evangelicals

Nevada’s caucuses saw the highest proportion of voters calling themselves very conservative. Nearly half – 49% – described themselves that way, which is comparable to Iowa (47%) but much higher than South Carolina (36%), Florida (33%), and New Hampshire (21%).

Romney lost these voters in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. He had a nominal win among the smaller group of very conservative voters in New Hampshire. But in Nevada, he racked up nearly half of this group’s vote – 46% to 25% for New Gingrich.

So what was different about Nevada’s very conservative voters? On the whole, not much. They look the same as very conservative voters in the other four states both demographically (age, gender, income, etc.) and in terms of issues and candidate quality preferences. The single area where the Silver State’s conservative bloc differs from prior contests is the significantly lower proportion of evangelical voters.

In fact, Nevada’s caucuses saw the second smallest proportion of voters who described themselves as Evangelical Christians. It was 28% there, compared to 64% in South Carolina, 57% in Iowa, and 47% in Florida. Only New Hampshire was lower at 22%.

Of course one of the reasons for the low evangelical total in Nevada is the high number of Mormons. More than 1-in-4 caucus goers belong to the same faith as Mitt Romney. In the four prior contests, Mormons numbered only 1%. As expected they went overwhelmingly for Romney – about 9-in-10.

Both Mormons and Catholics are much less likely than Protestants and other Christians to call themselves “born again.” Mormons and Catholics combined made up 46% of the Republican electorate in Nevada, 36% in New Hampshire, and 33% in Florida – the states that Romney won so far. These two denominations accounted for only 14% of voters in South Carolina, where Gingrich was the victor. (The Iowa entrance poll did not include data on religion.)

The importance of this is that there exists a correlation between being a strong conservative and being evangelical. In states where Romney did poorly with conservatives, the exit polls suggest that it had less to do with his experience and issue positions and more to do with his religion. It seems that concerns about Romney’s faith continue to occupy the minds of many GOP voters. This will be important to watch in heavily evangelical Protestant states, particularly in the South.

The Rich Thing

The exit polls in the five nomination contests held so far show a significant wealth gap in Mitt Romney’s support. In the three states he won, Romney garnered between 48% and 58% support levels among Republican voters earning more than $100,000 a year. And his share was even higher among those who earn over $200,000.

More importantly, Romney did worse among voters earning below $30,000 than he did among the wealthiest voters in all five states contested so far. The gap in his support between high earners and low earners was 5 points in South Carolina, 10 points in Florida, 17 points in New Hampshire, 21 points in Iowa, and a whopping 29 points in Nevada.

It seems that inartful comments about the poor and firing people, not to mention Donald Trump’s endorsement, has done nothing to help Romney close this “wealth gap” among GOP voters. If anything, it may have been exacerbated by these missteps.

The take away from Nevada is this. If Mitt Romney can navigate around the evangelical vote to win the GOP nomination, a key task in November will be to convince less affluent independent voters that he is on their side. So far, he has not been able to seal that deal with lower income voters from his own party.