No small part of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's trifecta of success on Tuesday was his support among evangelical voters and other social conservatives that were attracted to his campaign. His appeal to those voters on issues such as abortion and gay marriage allowed him to overcome what he lacks in campaign infrastructure and war chests when compared to his three rivals.
So while the next handful of GOP presidential primary states- Maine, Arizona, Michigan, and Washington – do not have as large a percentage of such voters, Santorum's success will have lingering consequences for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, experts say.
"The results yesterday cannot be ignored by the Romney campaign," says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics at the University of Minnesota. "What happened in Colorado and Minnesota has undermined Romney's campaign strategy of running a general election issue agenda."
In a race dominated by voters' concerns about the economy, Romney has proved adept at avoiding discussions of social issues that could alienate independent voters in the general election. Jacobs says Santorum's victories have changed that.
"What's happened with Santorum is he's hijacked the agenda and he's going to compel Romney now to address these social issues and as he does that, it's going to push Romney out of the mainstream where he needs to be to win the general election," he says. "There are some real doubts about whether he's a real conservative. It's almost like there's a culture war among the GOP nomination battle."
Romney, who has said he's evolved on the issue of abortion and is now firmly pro-life, has nonetheless had trouble convincing right-wingers they can trust him. Jacobs says it's really not an option for Romney to try pigeonhole Santorum as a single-issue candidate.
"If Romney tries to take on Santorum and marginalize him, he's going to face a very significant backlash among social conservatives who do support Santorum on these issues and who have serious doubts about Romney, least of which is the Mormonism issue," says Jacobs, referring to Romney's religion.
Ken Bickers, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, adds that while Romney's loss there was not solely due to evangelical voters, it certainly was a factor.
"I don't want to say that was the whole thing or even the main thing, but at the margins I suspect that it made it easier for [Santorum] to make the case for himself in the state given all the national attention to the religious issues," says Bickers.
A higher turnout would have favored Romney, Bickers says.
"But the fact that the turnout was low is a sign that support for Romney is tepid," he says.
Santorum's success came from campaigning around the state even before the Florida primary and creatively connecting with voters, Bickers says.
"They were using lots of different ways of trying to connect to potential voters," he says, adding that in Colorado evangelicals are a key demographic. "It doesn't require big media buys. Using social media, using robo-calls, and using more of a grassroots network helped."
Even though social conservatives are important in Colorado's primary, Bickers says Romney is correct in thinking that moving right to woo their votes would hurt him in the swing state's general election.
"He has kept some distance between himself and the social issues and I think that's wise when he gets to the general election," he says. "His problem is that he's got to get to the general election and last night was not a good night for him in terms of getting there."
Even worse for Romney, says Jacobs, is that Tuesday's results ensured a long primary battle.
'The narrative going into the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado of the Romney inevitability has been put into the backseat," he says. "It looks to me that we're looking at a contest that could go for weeks and maybe longer, and that's just bad news for Romney, because it means he's going to have to put more treasure into it, he's going to be pushed further away from the mainstream where he needs to be to win the general election, and his negative,s which are really taking off, will continue to rise, as he's chewed up."
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