The findings are part of an analysis of exit poll data conducted by the Pew Research Center. Polls were taken in seven of the 10 states that held caucuses or primaries March 6. The polls asked, in addition to religious affiliation, whether it matters that a
candidate shares the voter’s religious beliefs.
Three out of four Georgia voters said it did, but results from Tuesday’s primary show voters in Georgia largely voted along political, rather than religious, lines.
“Because Gingrich is from Georgia, it muddies the water a little bit, but there are still some interesting numbers here,” said Saundra Reinke, the director of the Center for Public Service and Research at Augusta State University.
ROMNEY, FOR EXAMPLE, won 38 percent of Georgia’s Catholic vote, even as he faced off against two Catholic politicians. The former Massachusetts governor narrowly beat Gingrich, who had 34 percent of the Catholic vote, and Rick Santorum, who had 21 percent.
Gingrich did best among evangelicals, winning 52 percent of the white, born-again evangelical vote in Georgia.
That category likely includes not only Protestants but also some Catholics and voters who otherwise say they have no religion, according to Pew Research, because it’s up to voters to self-identify as “evangelical.”
“Individuals who identify themselves as evangelical tend to be some of the most conservative politically,” Reinke said. “It makes sense that Gingrich appeals.”
Georgia was the only state in which the former House speaker did as well among evangelicals, according to Pew Research.
Santorum took the evangelical vote in three Super Tuesday states: Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Romney won the evangelical vote in two states: his home state of Massachusetts and in Virginia, where neither Gingrich nor Santorum were on the ballot.
IT’S NO SURPRISE that Romney, who won six of the 10 Super Tuesday races, received significantly less support from evangelicals than from non-evangelicals. According to Pew, that had happened in every pre-Super Tuesday contest with data available.
That’s likely because Romney’s Mormon faith continues to pose a challenge for religious conservative voters, according to Robert E. Botsch, a professor of political science and the director of the University of South Carolina Aiken Social Science and Business Research Lab.
After South Carolina’s GOP primary in January, Botsch analyzed exit poll data and released a report titled The Religion Question and Presidential Selection: Confronting the Elephant in the Room. He found that Romney did nearly twice as well among non-evangelical voters as he did among evangelicals, having won just 22 percent of
their votes in the South Carolina primary.
“I suspect the same thing is going on in Georgia,” Botsch wrote in an e-mail. “The misgivings about a Mormon are going to be highest among Protestant fundamentalists.”
ON SUPER TUESDAY, Gingrich did best among Protestants in general, winning 50 percent of their vote in Georgia, compared with Santorum at 23 percent and Romney at 21 percent.
For that, Gingrich owes John F. Kennedy a debt of gratitude, Botsch said.
“Voting for or against presidential candidates on the basis of religion has a long history in our nation, dating back to (John) Adams supporters opposing (Thomas) Jefferson on the grounds that he was not a Christian,” he wrote in the report. “That in 2012 ‘born-again’ Catholic Newt Gingrich won a plurality in heavily Protestant South Carolina suggests that we have come a long way since 1960, when whether to vote for a Catholic was the religion question. … Romney, whether he wins or loses, has the historic opportunity to help the nation begin to eliminate the religion question for one more religious group.”