A slew of polls were released on the eve of sorta-Super Tuesday. It’s not quite the stellar lineup originally planned. Texas pushed its primary back to May because of Congressional redistricting hiccups and Virginia is already in the Mitt Romney column because Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot there. Regardless, the signs point to the inevitability of a Romney nomination if he does well on March 6.
The polling aggregators at both Real Clear Politics and Huffington Post show the closely watched state of Ohio as a dead heat. However, the trend lines clearly show Romney gaining and Santorum dropping over the past week. And as we saw last week in Michigan, that trend was predictive of the final outcome.
Importantly, the March 6 primaries feature the two most socially conservative states to hold contests thus far. These are states where Santorum was expected to do well, but he now clings to a 2 to 3 point lead in Tennessee. Even in Oklahoma, his poll lead has fallen from around 20 points to 10 in the few polls conducted over the past month.
In the 2008 Republican primaries, two-thirds of voters from Tennessee and Oklahoma called themselves Evangelical Christians, among the highest concentration in the country. Furthermore, more than 4-in-10 GOP primary voters in these two states said it mattered a great deal to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs.
These are the voters who have been reticent to back Romney. Forget about the exit poll analysis you have seen claiming that Romney’s weakness is strong conservatives or strong Tea Party supporters. Those groups are important, but when you strip away the political and demographic characteristics of these groups, the one thing that differentiates their vote choice is whether they are evangelicals.
It’s the Mormon thing. Romney’s faith may be a sticking point with Protestants, but it doesn’t really bother Catholics. It’s little surprise that Romney has won every state where Catholics (or Catholics plus Mormons) made up at least 30% of the electorate.
Other than Massachusetts and Vermont, Ohio is the only state in the Super Tuesday lineup where the Catholic vote is expected to top 25%. [Idaho’s caucuses should have a sizable Mormon vote.] This looks good for Romney.
It also helps that Santorum’s appeal to blue collar voters fell short in Michigan and looks to do so again in Ohio. And Ohio, like Tennessee, has a significant number of voters who cast their ballots early. The Romney campaign has proven itself effective at pumping up the early vote. In the end, I think Romney will win Ohio by about 4 or 5 points.
But that’s still not enough to get the Romney inevitability train up to speed. It’ll be what happens in Tennessee and Oklahoma that determines whether the storyline turns to WHEN rather than IF Romney will clinch. I think Santorum will take Tennessee by 3 or 4 points and Oklahoma by 12. But if Romney performs well among the large group of evangelical voters who turn out – picking up at least one-third of that vote – it will be a clear sign that this hold-out group has finally started to accept the idea of Mitt Romney as their standard bearer in November.