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In the GOP nomination race, Romney and Cain run about even among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters (23% for Romney and 22% for Cain).

GOP Primary Contest

Newt Gingrich trails both Romney and Cain, but Gingrich’s support has doubled in the past month (from 8% to 16%). Currently, 8% favor Rick Perry, down from 17% about a month ago. As many now support Ron Paul for the GOP nomination as favor Perry. (For more, see “Obama Job Approval Improves, GOP Contest Remains Fluid,” Nov. 17, 2011.)

Romney’s support for the GOP nomination is more tepid among white evangelical Republicans, a key constituency within the GOP. White evangelical Republicans are less likely to name Romney as their first choice for the nomination; 17% of this group does so, while 26% name Cain and 19% name Gingrich.

Among white mainline Protestant GOP voters, Romney is the first choice for the nomination (26%) with Cain the next closest candidate at 17%. White Catholic Republicans are more closely divided between these two men with 26% for Romney and 23% for Cain.

Religion and Tea Party Support Affect Romney’s Primary Backing

Romney trails Cain slightly among white evangelical Republicans, and he also draws less support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters who agree with the Tea Party. Cain leads Romney among all Tea Party Republican voters (by 29% to 18%).

Romney is weakest among GOP voters who fall into both of these groups – white evangelicals who agree with the Tea Party. Just 11% of these voters support Romney for the GOP nomination, while more than three times as many (39%) back Cain.

General Election Matchups

When it comes to the general election, Romney does better in a head-to-head matchup with Obama than any of the other top-tier GOP candidates. Looking at all registered voters, white evangelical Protestant voters are just as likely to support Romney over Obama in a general election matchup as they are to support Cain, Gingrich, or Perry against Obama. And among white Catholic and white mainline Protestant voters, Romney holds considerably more appeal than the other GOP contenders.

Evangelical Support Does Not Slip if Romney Is GOP Nominee

Among all registered voters, 49% favor Obama while 47% support Romney. Obama holds significant leads over other leading Republican candidates (by 11 points over Perry and 12 points over Gingrich and Cain).

In the general election, white evangelical Protestant voters support each of the GOP candidates over Obama by about the same overwhelming margins; Romney’s advantage is 44 points while Cain, Gingrich and Perry each hold a 41-point advantage over Obama among white evangelicals.

Romney also has a wide lead over Obama among white mainline Protestant voters: 56% support Romney while just 38% support Obama. By contrast, Gingrich, Cain and Perry run roughly even with Obama among white mainline Protestants.

Among highly religious voters – those who say they attend religious services at least once a week – Romney has a 14-point lead (55% to 41%) over Obama. Gingrich, Perry and Cain run about even with Obama among these voters. Obama generally has the advantage among voters who attend services less frequently, but Romney ties Obama among voters who attend services only once or twice a month or a few times a year. (For a detailed breakdown of religious and demographic differences in presidential trial heats, see the tables that accompanied the Nov. 17 report.)

Personal Images of the 2012 Candidates

Among all voters, 50% have a favorable opinion of Obama while 48% view him unfavorably. Opinions of the GOP nomination candidates are less favorable, with views of Romney being the most positive. Overall, 38% hold a favorable view of Romney, 45% hold an unfavorable view.

How Religious Voters View the Candidates

Just a third of voters have a favorable opinion of Gingrich, compared with 52% who view him unfavorably. The balance of opinion also is negative in views of Cain (31% favorable, 52% unfavorable) and Perry (25% favorable, 55% unfavorable).

Voters’ personal impressions of Obama and the GOP candidates reflect their voting preferences. These four GOP candidates are viewed much more favorably than Obama among all white evangelicals; comparable percentages have favorable impressions of Gingrich (50% favorable), Romney (46%), Cain (45%) and Perry (42%). Just a quarter of white evangelicals (25%) have a favorable view of Obama.

Obama is viewed far more favorably than the GOP candidates by black Protestant voters and those with no religious affiliation. Fully nine-in-ten black Protestant voters (93%) view him favorably while no more than about a quarter view any of the GOP candidates favorably. And 65% of unaffiliated voters have a favorable impression of Obama, more than double the percentage that have a favorable opinion of any of the Republican candidates.

Romney’s Stable Image

Romney’s image has changed little since his unsuccessful campaign for the GOP nomination four years ago. Currently, 38% of voters have a favorable view of Romney while 45% express an unfavorable opinion. In February 2008, during the GOP primaries, 34% had a favorable opinion and 43% viewed Romney unfavorably.

Views of Romney Largely Unchanged  Since 2008 Campaign

There has been little change in the way that voters among different religious groups view Romney. White evangelical Protestant voters have mixed opinions of Romney (46% favorable, 40% unfavorable); this was also the case in early 2008 (42% favorable, 33% unfavorable), though fewer voters knew enough about Romney to hold an opinion. Similarly, as in February 2008, about as many white Catholic and white mainline voters view Romney favorably as unfavorably.

Romney and Cain: Traits and Characteristics

Romney is widely seen by GOP voters as well-qualified to be president as well as honest and trustworthy, and these views are shared by large majorities of Republican voters in different religious groups. For instance, 71% of all Republican and Republican-leaning voters say Romney is well-qualified to be president, and 65% say he is honest and trustworthy. Comparable majorities of white evangelical Republican voters also say these descriptions apply to Romney (67% well-qualified, 65% honest and trustworthy).

By contrast, Republican voters are less likely to say Romney understands the needs of people like them (54%), is a strong conservative (53%) and takes consistent positions on issues (47%). And only about a quarter of all GOP voters (24%) say Romney shares their religious beliefs. There are only modest differences across different religious groups – white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics – in these evaluations.

Cain’s image is very different: Only about half of all Republican and Republican-leaning voters say Cain is honest and trustworthy (50%) and well-qualified (49%). But compared with Romney, far more GOP voters say Cain is a strong conservative (64%) and that he takes consistent positions on issues (60%). White evangelicals (70%) are somewhat more likely than white mainline Protestants (58%) or white Catholics (57%) to view Cain as a strong conservative.

And more Republican voters say Cain shares their religious beliefs (34%) than say that about Romney (24%). Notably, while nearly half of white evangelical Protestants (46%) say Cain shares their religious beliefs, just 19% say that description applies to Romney.

GOP Voters View Romney as Well-Qualified, But More See Cain as a Strong Conservative

GOP Candidates’ Religions Not Widely Known

Only about half (48%) of all registered voters know that Romney is a Mormon. Even fewer know the religions of two other Republican candidates, Cain and Perry. A quarter (25%) of voters know that Cain is Protestant, and although 31% are aware that Perry is Protestant, just 17% know he is an evangelical Protestant.

Romney’s Religion Better Known

More than half (56%) of Republican and Republican-leaning voters correctly identify Romney’s faith. Fewer Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters know that Romney is a Mormon. Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to know that Cain is a Protestant (30% vs. 22%). But there is no partisan gap in awareness of Perry’s faith.

Among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, members of most religious groups are about equally knowledgeable of Romney’s religion, with six-in-ten white evangelicals (60%) and more than half of white Catholics (56%) and white mainline Protestants (52%) correctly identifying Romney as a Mormon.

Candidates’ Religions a Minor Factor in Voting Preferences

Few voters say that the religion of the GOP candidates will impact their voting decision, either positively or negatively. Very small percentages say that Cain or Perry’s religion makes them either more or less likely to vote for them.

Impact of Romney’s Religion

GOP Evangelicals Somewhat More Likely to See Romney’s Religion as an Issue

Romney’s religion is not a major factor for most voters. Nearly nine-in-ten Republican and Republican-leaning voters (88%) are either unaware of Romney’s religion or say it would make no difference in their vote.

Protestant Republican voters are somewhat more inclined than Catholic Republicans to say they would be less likely to vote for Romney because he is a Mormon. Most white evangelical Republican voters either do not know Romney’s religion (40%) or say it would make no difference to their vote (42%), but 15% say it makes them less likely to vote for him.

Parties’ Friendliness to Religion

GOP Consistently Viewed as More Friendly to Religion

As was the case throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, more Americans currently say the Republican Party is friendly to religion than say that about the Democratic Party. But significantly fewer see the GOP as friendly to religion than did so during the Bush years.

Currently, 43% of the public says that the Republican Party is friendly to religion; 26% say the GOP is neutral toward religion, while 19% say it is unfriendly. From 2003-2008, about 50% viewed the GOP as friendly to religion.

In the current survey, 30% say the Democratic Party is friendly to religion. A plurality (40%) says the Democratic Party is neutral to religion, and 20% see it as unfriendly.

Pluralities of white evangelical Protestants (53%), white mainline Protestants (46%) and white Catholics (43%) say the GOP is friendly to religion; much smaller percentages of white evangelicals (18%), white mainline Protestants (32%) and white Catholics (29%) view the Democratic Party as friendly to religion. By contrast, 45% of black Protestants say the Democratic Party is friendly to religion, compared with 23% who say the same about the GOP.