It's the $500,000 question. Has the GOP base finally begun to coalesce behind Mitt Romney given his hat trick of primary victories this week?
Tea Party members and evangelical Christians in Wisconsin, for instance, were more supportive of Romney than those groups of voters had been in previous states. And according to exit poll numbers, Romney turned in a stronger performance among self-identified conservatives in both Maryland and Wisconsin than he has in previous states. But does this equate to a coalescing of the party faithful around the expected nominee? Well, sort of.
The problem in forecasting from these results is that the two groups of voters aren’t homogeneous. An evangelical voter in Wisconsin isn't necessarily the same as an evangelical voter in Louisiana. So comparing the results among these groups can be a bit misleading. What's more telling is how the numbers moved in Wisconsin.
The numbers from Public Policy Polling were very accurate in Wisconsin. The firm’s surveys showed that while Romney had captured more support from evangelicals, it wasn't at Santorum’s expense. In PPP’s February poll, Romney got 21 percent of evangelical voters compared to 49 percent for Santorum. In their March poll a month later, Romney’s support moved to 35 percent while Santorum’s dropped slightly to 47 percent.
On Election Day, according to the exits, Romney won 38 percent of evangelicals while Santorum received the support of 43 percent. Given these numbers it appears that Romney is receiving the bulk of undecided evangelicals as opposed to Santorum’s support becoming soft among this cohort.
In terms of Tea Party voters, it’s a bit harder to compare the PPP polling with the exit poll numbers due to the differences in the way the questions were posed. That being said, in the February PPP poll, Romney polled 18 percent to Santorum’s 54 percent among Tea Party supporters. In March, Romney made significant gains and increased his support by a whopping 28 points while Santorum’s support among this cohort dropped 16 points. In the exit polls, Romney won 49 percent of the vote from those who support the Tea Party, compared to Santorum’s 37 percent. Since this is comparing supporters to people who consider themselves members it’s not an exact comparison, but Romney’s gains in momentum are clearly similar.
While there is some overlap between evangelicals and Tea Party members/supporters, these are still distinct groups who hold different strategic meanings for the candidates. Generally, Santorum isn't focusing his messaging to the Tea Party crowd as much as he's focusing on evangelicals. It does appear, though, that part of the Republican base is moving to Romney. It'll be interesting to see if the evangelical vote starts to follow this pattern.
Romney clearly has some work to do with evangelicals between now and November. While this group won't vote for President Obama in any real numbers, if they stay home, Romney’s job becomes much tougher. .
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.