Iowa caucuses confirm evangelicals reject Romney. What else do they show?

Entrance polls to Iowa caucuses reveal the likes and dislikes of various GOP factions. They show, for one, that Republicans who care about 'electability' prefer Mitt Romney, but that evangelicals and die-hard conservatives do not. 

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday.

Iowa often takes heat for being first in line to judge presidential candidates, despite having a population that is hardly representative of the nation as a whole.

Indeed, Iowa is largely white, and Republican caucusgoers more evangelical, more male, more conservative, and better off financially than the country as a whole.

Still, we can learn a lot about the Republican presidential field from the entrance polls of the Iowa caucuses.

Evangelicals: Mitt Romney, the winner of the caucuses by just eight votes over Rick Santorum, clearly has a problem with evangelicals. Mr. Romney won just 14 percent of those who describe themselves as either evangelical or born-again Christian, while Mr. Santorum won that demographic, with 32 percent. That won’t matter much in New Hampshire, but it’s important in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21. It also matters in northern Florida, which is part of the Old South. Florida’s primary is on Jan. 31.

Conservatives: Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, also faces a deficit among those who self-identify as “very conservative.” He won only 14 percent of those caucusgoers, down from 23 percent of that group in 2008. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, won a plurality of the “very conservative” with 34 percent. Romney beat out the field among voters who are “somewhat conservative” with 33 percent and those who are “moderate,” with 38 percent. But in a cycle fueled by conservative angst about government spending and the economy, Romney needs to win their support if not their love.

Electability: Romney confirmed his image as Mr. Electable against President Obama. When voters were asked which candidate quality matters most, Romney got 49 percent of those who chose “can defeat Barack Obama.”

Experience: Romney also came out on top, with 33 percent, among those who chose “has the right experience” as the candidate quality that matters most. And when caucusgoers were asked to choose which kind of experience is better preparation for the presidency – working in government or in business –Romney won those who chose business, with 36 percent.

Moral character: Santorum won with 39 percent among those who chose “has strong moral character” as the most important quality. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas came in second with 24 percent, followed by Romney with 11 percent.

Late deciders: Santorum was the king of late deciders in Iowa, which is self-evident, given that his support in polls didn’t begin to pick up substantially until the week preceding the caucuses. That could bode well for Santorum in subsequent contests, as polls show a high percentage of voters still willing to change their preference. 

Young versus old: Congressman Paul, as expected, did well among the young, winning 48 percent of those between ages 17 and 29. But Romney did better than the other candidates among seniors, winning 32 percent of those 65 and older – a group that turns out more reliably than younger voters at primaries and caucuses.

Independents: This was another good demographic for Paul, who won 44 percent of this group. And independents represented a higher proportion of caucusgoers – 23 percent – than they did four years ago, when the figure was 13 percent. This bodes well for Paul in New Hampshire, which allows independents to vote in its primary. It could also signal potential for a third-party candidacy by Paul.

The 2012 GOP Iowa caucuses were the best-attended ever, with 122,255 people turning out, about 3,000 more than in 2008. Tuesday night, the Precinct 97 caucus at Jefferson Elementary School in Des Moines was a standing-room-only affair, with 208 votes cast. Several of those interviewed were first-time caucusgoers – and they weren’t only young people.

“I just started paying attention to politics a year ago, and I figured, what the heck, I’ll go to the caucus,” says Ron Munsinger, a retiree from Des Moines. “All this last-minute stuff with Congress bugs me.”

He blames Mr. Obama. His choice at the caucus: Romney. His rationale: electability.  

Jerry Decker, also of Des Moines, is a regular caucusgoer and a self-described tea party supporter. He walked into the school torn between Newt Gingrich and Santorum, but in the end it “came down to Christian values.” He voted for Santorum.

Standing next to Mr. Decker was his 20-year-old daughter, home for winter break from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, taking part in her first caucus. Her choice? “I followed what my dad did,” said the college sophomore.

Forty-five minutes into the caucus, one of 1,774 around the state, the results were in: 43 percent for Romney, 20 percent for Paul, and 16 percent for Santorum. The wide disparity with the statewide result shows the importance of regional differences.

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