(Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
In the five contests for the Republican presidential nomination so far, Mitt Romney's share of the evangelical vote has risen from a low of 14 percent in the Iowa caucus to a high of 43 percent in Saturday's Nevada caucus. Is this a sign that evangelicals are becoming more accepting of Romney, a Mormon, as the nominee?
Family Research Council Tony Perkins said in a Sunday CNN interview that he does not think that Romney has "captured" the support of evangelicals, but evangelicals are "warming" to Romney.
A plurality of evangelicals have chosen the winner of each GOP contest so far, except in Florida.
In a close race, Rick Santorum beat Romney in the Iowa caucus on the strength of evangelical voters. A plurality, 33 percent, of evangelicals supported Santorum while a plurality, 38 percent, of non-evangelicals supported Romney. Romney won the New Hampshire primary and also got the most evangelical votes – 31 percent. And in Florida, Romney won with 46 percent of the vote. He also won 36 percent to Gingrich's 38 percent of evangelicals, which is within the margin of error.
Romney's strong showing among evangelicals in Nevada could be due to a national trend of growing acceptance of Romney among evangelicals, or it could be due to state-level variation among evangelicals.
The difference between the evangelical vote and the non-evangelical vote for Romney was smallest in the states that had the fewest evangelicals voting.
Evangelicals comprised 21 percent of the electorate in New Hampshire and 24 percent in Nevada. The South Carolina primary had the highest proportion of evangelicals at 64 percent.
In Nevada and New Hampshire, the difference between the evangelical and non-evangelical votes for Romney was only nine percentage points. By comparison, the spread was 24 percentage points in Iowa, 18 in Florida and 16 in South Carolina.
It may be that evangelicals in states where they are a minority are more accepting of a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for president. Florida megachurch pastor Joel C. Hunter believes this was the case for Florida.
"Our nature, of being a fairly mobile state, with a lot of tourism and a lot of transcultural and transnational interaction really makes us boundary spanning, rather than sticking to our own affinity groups. For any independent church, you're going to be open – necessarily open – to non-ready made boundaries, open to other religious groups. You'll be more likely to partner with groups that aren't necessarily like your own," Hunter said in a Jan. 28 CNN interview.
Perkins pointed out on Sunday that evangelicals and social conservatives are not looking for a perfect candidate, but one who can win the general election.
"Who's going to have that baggage? We're not looking for a candidate that can walk on water. We're looking for a candidate that doesn't sink under the weight of their own baggage – both past and present political positions," he noted.
Exit and entrance polls conducted by CNN were used to provide the data for this article.