A nationwide Super Tuesday primary may have tightened Sen. John McCain's hold on the Republican presidential nomination. But his candidacy has already exposed divides between evangelical voters and their spokesmen. And with surveys indicating many undecided evangelical voters, experts say Democrats could make inroads, depending on which candidate they eventually nominate.
Evangelical Republicans divided their votes nearly evenly between the top three candidates, according to exit polls. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee collected 34 percent, while former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney earned 31 percent. McCain followed closely with 29 percent.
Huckabee, despite little official support from conservative leaders, won five Southern states with large numbers of evangelicals. Romney, the preferred candidate of many high-profile conservatives, could not top either Huckabee or McCain in any Bible Belt state.
"Trying to pigeonhole evangelical voters by looking at a few leaders is probably a big mistake," said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum.
Data about evangelicals and Democrats is sketchy because exit polls did not ask whether voters were born again. Yet a February 4 survey from the Barna Group indicates growing openness of born-again Christians toward a Democratic candidate. Indeed, 40 percent of born-again Christians said they would vote for the Democrats' presidential candidate, compared to 29 percent for the Republicans'. Yet among evangelicals, defined by Barna as a more doctrinally strict subset of born-again Christians, 45 percent said they would vote for the Republican. Only 11 percent pledged support for the Democrat.
Both sets of numbers leave a large swath of undecided ...