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Poll: Romney has firm lead in TN

8:09 AM, Oct 28, 2012   |    comments
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By Sam Stockard, Gannett

MURFREESBORO -- If Tennessee voters had concerns about electing a Mormon to the White House for the first time in American history, they've apparently gotten over it in the past few months.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney leads President Barack Obama in Tennessee by a margin of 59 percent to 34 percent, according to a poll released Saturday by Middle Tennessee State University. The poll found that 74 percent of white evangelical Christians surveyed support Romney.

"The once-strained relationship between Gov. Romney and religious Tennesseans seems to have improved markedly since the spring's primary election," said Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll.

The poll, taken just before the March primary, found church-going Republicans favored former Sen. Rick Santorum nearly 6-to-1 over Romney, while the split was balanced for Tennessee Republicans who attended church less often, Blake said.

Overall, Santorum won 37 percent of the GOP primary vote to Romney's 28 percent and Newt Gingrich's 24 percent.

Jason Reineke, associate director of the poll, noted several things that have happened in Romney's favor. They included a meeting with the Rev. Billy Graham and a USA Today column by Franklin Graham saying "it's OK for an evangelical to vote for a Mormon."

Ultimately, though, voters who identified themselves as evangelical Christians may be driven "more by opposition to Obama than direct support for Romney," Reineke said.

"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 times."

Voters leaving the Rutherford County Election Commission Office after casting early votes Friday weren't surprised that Romney is dominating the white evangelical Christian vote.

For the most part, those leaving the polls said Romney's Mormonism did not affect their votes.

"I believe the Christians feel Romney is going to be a better leader for them as to what their values are," said Linda Porter, a retired Murfreesboro resident who voted with her husband, Ron Porter, a retired Vietnam veteran.

People have put concerns about Romney's religion behind them, she said, "because they're looking at the person and the running mate he's put on the ticket. They feel he has a different feel for America."

Romney chose Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as his running mate.

White evangelical Christians make up 61 percent of the state's likely voters, and that segment supported the Republican candidate in the 2004 and 2008 elections. The only notable division among that demographic was a split between white male evangelicals, 79 percent of whom are pro-Romney, and white female evangelicals, 63 percent of whom back the former Massachusetts governor.

Even among white Tennessee voters who don't consider themselves evangelicals, Romney garnered 50 percent of the support here to Obama's 38 percent, with 11 percent undecided. President Obama's base of support lies with black Tennesseans, with 91 percent of them favoring him but accounting for only 12 percent of likely voters.

Political independents in Tennessee favor Romney by 68 percent compared to 22 percent for Obama. People with strong party affiliations stayed committed, as well, with 89 percent of self-described Democrats sticking with Obama and 95 percent of Republicans favoring Romney.

Democrats made up 28 percent of the survey, compared to Republicans at 30 percent and those calling themselves independents at 32 percent.

Judy Whitehill, chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party, said the survey reflects what happened four years ago in Tennessee, which explains why neither Romney nor Obama is campaigning here. She remains hopeful for local and congressional races.

"I hope people are looking at what affects their pocketbook the most and who is going to work across the aisle" on economic and education issues, she said.

Whitehill said she believes Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart is even with or ahead of Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the wake of revelations that DesJarlais had a sexual relationship with a patient 12 years ago while he was still married and then urged the woman to get an abortion. DesJarlais responded that the woman was not pregnant and didn't get an abortion, though he never denied the relationship, which is an ethical violation for physicians.

In another key election, respondents favored Republican Sen. Bob Corker by 59 percent to 21 percent for Democratic candidate Mark Clayton, who was disavowed by the state party because of his stance on gay rights. Twelve percent were undecided.

The poll surveyed 650 randomly selected registered voters by telephone Oct. 16-21. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent and was conducted by Issues & Answers Network, Inc., rather than using MTSU students as was done previously.

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