May 142012
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney attends commencement ceremonies as the scheduled commencement speaker at Arthur L. Williams Stadium on the campus of Liberty University

During Mitt Romney’s address this weekend to the evangelical Liberty University, he made precisely one mention of gay marriage, saying simply: “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”

By passing on the opportunity to fire up the socially conservative base in perhaps the most ideal setting, Romney served notice of two things.

First, he made clear (again) that he’s not going to make President Obama’s embrace of gay marriage an issue in the 2012 campaign — at all. This much has become pretty apparent over the course of the last week.

And the second, perhaps more significant lesson, is that Romney’s team is not worried about turning out the GOP base in November.

Saturday’s speech presented Romney with a pretty good opportunity to at least throw some red meat in the direction of socially conservative voters.

This is a guy, after all, who struggled mightily to woo evangelical and conservative voters in the primary season, and a guy who in his first run for public office promised to do more for the gay and lesbian community than Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). What’s more, polling suggests some independents and Democrats are turned off by Obama’s position, and Rick Santorum is calling for Romney to focus on the issue.

Few would have blamed Romney, then, for offering a couple more sentences on the issue, at least to clarify his position. It would have turned into a major news story, to be certain, but there was undoubtedly a way to at least talk about the issue in broad terms and assure social conservatives that he’s on their side.

Instead, Romney totally punted.

And there’s a good reason for that, because for whatever problems Romney had with evangelicals in the primary, they’ve certainly rallied around him in the general election.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll released last week showed Romney’s favorable rating among white evangelicals has increased from 40 percent in October to 67 percent today. Romney also leads Obama 67 percent to 19 percent among this demographic.

That 48-point edge is basically the same margin by which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won white evangelicals in 2008 (73 percent to 26 percent), and it’s approaching the edge President Bush had among that demographic in 2004, when he won it 79 percent to 21 percent. (So-called “values voters” were supposed to be the big reason Bush won that election.)

Given that the primary campaign is still only a few weeks in the can, it’s not unreasonable to think that Romney can expand his advantage even wider. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Obama’s favorable/unfavorable split among white evangelicals at 21 percent positive and 74 percent negative.

In other words, it’s hard not to believe 14 percent off undecideds in the PRRI poll will swing towards Romney. Whatever reservations they have about Romney, it’s nothing in comparison to their distaste for Obama.

Romney’s campaign knows this. It’s why he didn’t use the occasion Saturday to talk about Mormonism or gay marriage, instead keeping his single-minded campaign focused on the economy.

And given the generally positive reviews of Romney’s speech, we can pretty safely say that he has played his cards right. As evidenced by that response, social conservatives aren’t yet clamoring for Romney to take up their mantle on this issue and prove his bona fides.

And until they do, he’s got little reason to do it.