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Why Romney and Santorum Fought to a Draw in Iowa Why Romney and Santorum Fought to a Draw in Iowa

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Campaign 2012

Why Romney and Santorum Fought to a Draw in Iowa

New voters, split evangelicals and Romney in a rut

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop at Valley High School, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, in West Des Moines, Iowa.((AP Photo/Charlie Riedel))

Ron Paul expanded the electorate. Mitt Romney slightly advanced from his key beachheads in 2008. Evangelical Christians splintered but gave Rick Santorum the largest slice of their votes.

Those dynamics, captured in the Edison Research National Election Pool entrance poll at the Iowa caucuses, explained the tight three-way race among the top contenders in Iowa.

The big story in Iowa appears to be that Romney’s camp is getting the result it wanted despite a merely workmanlike showing for their own candidate. That’s because the Iowa results will elevate Paul and Santorum, who face the greatest hurdles in building a national campaign, while depressing Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry -- either of whom might have had more chance to emerge as a threat to Romney if they had received a boost from Iowa.  

 

Still, the results leave open the question that has dogged the former Massachusetts governor all year: whether outside of his home terrain in New Hampshire, he can expand his support much beyond 25 to 30 percent of the Republican electorate.

As in many polls over the past year, Romney turned in a solid but hardly spectacular performance. Despite facing what is arguably a much weaker field than 2008, Romney only modestly increased his share of the vote even among the groups that were most favorable to him last time, like voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians and the most affluent caucus-goers, and slipped among some others, like evangelicals. 

Largely running in place was good enough for a strong Romney showing in Iowa because the groups resistant to him didn’t coalesce behind a single alternative (though Santorum came closest to uniting them, he didn’t post overwhelming numbers with the most ardent elements, either). As the race moves forward, and the field inevitably contracts, Romney will face more pressure to expand his base, though that pressure will be limited if the overlapping circles of evangelical Christians and strong tea party supporters most dubious of him continue to fragment among the remaining alternatives.

As for Iowa, the entrance poll, which surveyed 1,737 Iowans on their way into the caucuses, made clear that Paul’s strong showing was overwhelmingly a function of attracting voters beyond the Republican core. In the survey, independents increased their share of the caucus vote from 13 percent in 2008 to 23 percent this time; Paul won over two-fifths of them. Young voters aged 17-29 were 11 percent of the vote last time and increased to 15 percent this time; Paul won almost half of them. And the share of caucus-goers who identify as moderate or liberal spiked to 17 percent from 12 percent last time; Paul won 39 percent of them.

In all nearly two-in-five of those voting Tuesday night said they had not previously attended a caucus: Paul captured 34 percent of them, far more than Santorum (22 percent) or Romney (17 percent). All of this could make Paul a wild card in states that allow independents to participate in Republican primaries – including New Hampshire, the next test.

But Paul’s performance was actually quite modest among the core Republican constituencies. Paul won a very modest 14 percent of the three-fifths of voters who had previously attended another caucus; Romney led among those repeat voters with about twice that much, slightly more than Santorum. Similarly, among the three-fourths of caucus-goers who identified as Republicans, Santorum (28 percent) and Romney (27 percent) soundly beat Paul (at only 14 percent).

Romney, meanwhile, posted slight gains over his 2008 performance among several favorable groups. Last time he won 28 percent of seniors; the exit poll shows him edging up to 32 percent. In 2008, he won 32 percent of caucus-goers who earned over $100,000 annually; this time he is polling 36 percent with those affluent Republicans. Among those earning at least $50,000 annually, Romney held his 28 percent from 2008. With less-affluent voters, Romney slipped compared to 2008, largely because so many of them flocked to Paul. Romney suffered comparable declines among voters younger than 45 for the same reason.

In recent years, though, the most important divide in Iowa Republican politics has been the distance between voters who identify as evangelicals and those who don’t. Evangelical Christians, according to the exit poll, comprised almost exactly the same preponderant majority of voters here as in the 2008 contest: 58 percent this time, compared to 60 percent then.

Romney slightly improved his 2008 showing among voters who don’t identify as evangelicals: he captured 33 percent then, and drew 38 percent this time, according to the exit poll. Romney actually managed even less support this time than last among those who do identify as evangelical Christians: he won 19 percent last time, but was polling only 14 percent in this round of the exit polls.

That could presage a lasting headache for Romney with those voters, many of whom question his Mormon religion or his commitment to socially conservative causes, or both: evangelicals cast about 45 percent of the total vote in the 2008 GOP primaries, according to a cumulative analysis of exit polls conducted by ABC News. But Iowa also hints at the potential saving grace for Romney with those voters. In 2008, Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister himself, captured 46 percent of Iowa evangelicals, enough to power a solid victory in the caucuses.

To a far greater extent, those voters divided this year. Santorum captured the most of them, according to this round of exit polls, but only reached 32 percent. After that, Iowa evangelicals split between Paul (19 percent), Gingrich and Romney at (14 percent) and Perry at 13 percent. (Michele Bachmann, who ran a campaign aimed heavily at those voters, won just 6 percent of them.)

That precedent suggests Santorum may leave Iowa as a powerful competitor for evangelical votes, but as a Northern Catholic is unlikely to win as preponderant a share of them as did Huckabee, a Southern Baptist.

It was a similar story among the most ardent tea party activists, who have consistently expressed skepticism about Romney in national and state polls. Among the nearly one-third of caucus-goers who identified as strong tea party supporters, Romney attracted just 14 percent. But those voters again divided, with Santorum leading among them with a modest 30 percent. Voters who described themselves as somewhat supportive of the tea party fractured into a three-way split, with Santorum slightly leading Romney and Paul. Meanwhile, Paul and Romney held a solid lead over Santorum among the roughly one-fourth of caucus-goers who said they were neutral on the tea party.

Taken together, these Iowa results leave the GOP race spinning around the same two questions that have defined it throughout. Can Romney significantly expand his support around the country? And can anyone else consolidate the vanguard conservative voters consistently resisting him? All surveys show Romney poised for a strong showing in next week’s New Hampshire primary, which could give him a solid burst of momentum. That suggests his opponents may face more urgency on the latter question than he does on the former.

 

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