Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney leads President Barack Obama in the race for president in Tennessee, bolstered at least partly by the support he has gained among Tennessee’s white evangelical voters since last spring’s primary.
A solid 59 percent of the state’s registered, likely voters say they support Romney, according to a survey conducted by the Middle Tennessee State University Poll, a division within the College of Mass Communication.
Just 34 percent say they support Obama. About 6 percent are undecided, and the remaining 1 percent say they support someone else.
Romney enjoys his broadest support among the self-described white evangelical Christians who make up nearly two-thirds, at 61 percent, of the state’s likely voters. Among Tennesseans in this group, Romney leads Obama 74 percent to 21 percent, with 5 percent undecided.
This segment of Tennessee’s electorate has supported the Republican candidate for president in both elections since 2004, the first presidential election during which the MTSU Poll sampled attitudes statewide.
The closest thing to a division in this key demographic for Republicans in Tennessee happens along its gender split, with 79 percent of male white evangelicals significantly more pro-Romney than female white evangelicals. Roughly 63 percent of those women support the former Massachusetts governor.
“The once-strained relationship between Romney and religious Tennesseans seems to have improved markedly since this spring’s primary election,” said Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll, who specializes in mass media research in the School of Journalism.
“Our spring poll, taken just prior to the election, found church-going Tennessee Republicans favoring then-rival Rick Santorum over Romney by nearly 6-to-1," he said. "Among Tennessee Republicans who attended church less often, the split was more balanced.”
Jason Reineke, associate director of the MTSU Poll, said there are several possible explanations as to why white evangelicals have gotten behind Romney following the primary.
“Some may be responding to signals by evangelical leaders – Franklin Graham’s September column in USA Today is a recent example – that it’s OK for an evangelical to vote for a Mormon,” Reineke said. “Also, some religious voters’ choices may be driven more by opposition to Obama than direct support for Romney. However, it is also important to note that it is far from uncommon for partisans who didn’t vote for the winner in their primary to come home to the party, almost regardless of the candidate selected, in these highly polarized political times.
“Thus, the support for Romney we see among white evangelical Christians actually may have little to do with their race or religion and just be another example of partisan loyalty and entrenchment.”
Santorum won the state’s March 6 Republican primary, capturing 37 percent of the votes cast compared to 28 percent for Romney, 24 percent for Newt Gingrich and about 10 percent spread among the remaining candidates.
In the current MTSU Poll, 84 percent of those who said they had voted for Santorum in 2010 have now sided with Romney.
Obama’s base, meanwhile, rests among the state’s African-Americans, 91 percent of whom favor Obama but who account for only about 12 percent of likely voters.
Meanwhile, among the state’s whites who do not consider themselves evangelical Christians, Obama and Romney poll closer, with Obama at 37 percent, Romney at 50 percent, 12 percent undecided, and the rest preferring someone else.
In another pattern of support for the two candidates, 68 percent of political independents tend to favor Romney over Obama, who has garnered 22 percent of their support, with the rest undecided or favoring someone else.
Unsurprisingly, self-described Democrats and Republicans show near total support for their parties’ nominees, with 89 percent of Democrats favoring Obama and 95 percent of Republicans favoring Romney. It is important to note that partisan self-identification is predominantly determined by candidate preference in presidential election years, making discussions of Democrats voting for Obama and Republicans voting for Romney largely tautological.
Overall, self-described Democrats accounted for 28 percent of the sample, self-described Republicans, 30 percent, and self-described independents, 32 percent.
Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker leads Democratic challenger Mark Clayton, who has been disavowed by his own party, by a comfortable 59 percent to 21 percent. About 12 percent of voters say they are undecided, and the rest either prefer someone else or give no answer.
As is the case in the presidential race, the politically unaffiliated tend to favor the Republican candidate, Corker, over the Democratic candidate, Clayton.
Fifty-four percent of Democrats support Clayton, 17 percent support Corker, 16 percent don’t know, and only 8 percent say they support someone. Republicans, meanwhile, heavily favor Corker by 90 percent.
“Given the small number of likely voters who support someone other than Corker or Clayton, and the majority of self-identified Democrats who support Clayton, it appears that the Tennessee Democratic Party’s attempt to encourage a write-in campaign has failed to gain significant traction,” Reineke said.
As for the U.S. House of Representatives races, 49 percent of the state’s likely voters would like to see a Republican win in their districts compared to about a third who would like to see a Democrat win in their districts. Another 16 percent are undecided, and the rest would prefer someone else or give no answer.
Here, again, the politically unaffiliated break in Republicans’ favor, with 53 percent favoring a Republican winner compared to the 17 percent favoring a Democratic winner and a sizable 27 percent undecided. The rest give no answer or prefer someone else.