Mitt Romney has three big things going for him in today’s Republican caucuses in Nevada: Momentum (and fund-raising chops) from his big win in Florida’s primary election Tuesday. A fractured and therefore ineffectual tea party movement. And a lot of Mormon coreligionists.
At this point in the campaign, with former tea party favorites Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain having dropped out, the conservative political insurgency might have been expected to coalesce around Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum as their anybody-but-Romney choice. (But not, most likely, Ron Paul because of what many perceive as his isolationist stand on national security, particularly regarding Israel.)
But tea party leaders are the first to admit that any unified effort was and is unlikely.
“There’s so much infighting,” Reno-area tea party organizer Richard Disney told the Las Vegas Sun. “Santorum has a lot behind him, but he’s not going to win; everybody knows that. Gingrich has some behind him, but so many people in the tea party detest Gingrich. Half hate him and half say he’s more conservative than Romney so they’ll support him.”
“The Republican establishment are doing their best to dismantle the tea party,” Disney added, “and they’re doing a good job, frankly.”
But the “Republican establishment” – i.e., Romney backers – can’t be blamed (or credited) with tea party failures. Two years ago, the movement split among several potential Republican candidates to challenge Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who clearly was vulnerable as a symbol for everything the tea party fought against. Sharron Angle won the nod, but lost to Reid in a race often focusing on her controversial assertions and general campaign strangeness.
A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll this week shows Romney may be chipping away at the tea party.
Gingrich bests Romney 37-27 among those who say they “strongly support” the tea party movement, but Romney is favored by more than half of those who support the tea party “somewhat.” Romney beats Gingrich by 20 points (45-25) among all likely caucus participants.
"I think Romney is getting some traction there finally with the tea party," Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, told the Review-Journal. "It's the electability argument. We saw the same thing in Florida. Now we're going to be looking for whether or not he is starting to solidify the conservative base."
Four years ago, Romney won the Nevada caucuses with 51 percent, and the support of fellow Mormons was a big factor.
“Despite comprising about 7 percent of the state’s population, they made up more than one-quarter of the GOP caucus electorate, and entrance polls showed Romney winning a stunning 95 percent of their vote,” notes Aaron Blake in the Washington Post’s political blog The Fix. “In other words, half of Romney’s vote in Nevada came from fellow Mormons, and he could have won the state’s caucuses even if he hadn’t gotten a single vote from anyone else.”
The Review-Journal poll this week shows 86 percent of Mormons likely to vote for Romney in the Saturday caucuses.
It’s been estimated that Romney may have lost about 10 percent of the vote in Iowa and South Carolina – heavily evangelical Christian states – because of his faith. But across much of the interior West – in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and certainly Utah – it no doubt helps him.
“The LDS thing I think is probably less of an issue here … because we’re so familiar with Mormons and the LDS faith,” former Colorado Rep. Bob Beauprez, a Romney supporter, told Politico.com. “I think most people see them as patriotic folks, good neighbors, hard workers, wonderful family values. The mystery, if there’s any of that, just doesn’t exist out here.”
In his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times, Nate Silver scans all recent polls to conclude that Romney is unbeatable in Nevada. Romney has a 100 percent chance of winning, likely with more than 50 percent of the votes, Silver writes.
Such predictions always carry an important caveat: If the former Massachusetts governor wins by a slimmer margin than predicted – always a possibility, especially since Gingrich is running hundreds of ads in Nevada (many of them negative), thanks to an infusion of super PAC funds from billionaire casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson – then Romney won’t have nailed down the nomination.
But later in the month, Arizona and Colorado will hold their nominating events (a primary election and caucuses, respectively). Those are two more states where Romney’s Mormon supporters can be expected to be an important factor in the outcome.