Republican presidential primary front runner Mitt Romney’s having trouble closing the deal nationally — but they love him in northern Gila County.
Romney won 40 percent of the Republican vote on Feb. 28 in Gila County Supervisorial District 1, which includes most of northern Gila County.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum garnered 31 percent of the vote, the week before registering narrow victories in two southern primaries where Christian evangelical voters represented a big chunk of the Republican primary ballots.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gleaned just 18 percent of the vote and Congressman Ron Paul drew just 9 percent.
Since the Arizona presidential preference vote, Romney and Santorum have traded blows at the polls in other states. Romney won big in Hawaii and Wyoming while Santorum won a runaway victory in Kansas and narrow victories in Mississippi and Alabama.
Observers noted that in Arizona and northern Gila County Romney likely benefited from the strong support of Church of Latter-day Saints voters who provide a crucial core Republican vote. Mormons comprised 14 percent of the Republican voters statewide according to exit polls, but a higher percentage in Gila County. Mormons also make up 5 percent of the vote in Hawaii, where Romney won with 46 percent to Santorum’s 25 percent.
Religion has played a key role in the Republican primaries so far, with the Catholic Santorum polling well with voters who told exit pollers they considered religion a key factor in their decision.
In a 2007 column in the Philadelphia Inquirer Santorum famously wrote: “Would the potential attraction to Mormonism by simply having a Mormon in the White House threaten traditional Christianity by leading more Americans to a church that some Christians believe misleadingly calls itself Christian, is an active missionary church, and a dangerous cult?”
Northern Gila County Republicans turned out in respectable numbers for a presidential preference poll Republicans pushed as far forward in the still fluid primary process as possible.
Turnout in most Payson precincts topped 53 percent, with turnouts in south county closer to 45 percent.
Overall, 50 percent of Gila County Republicans voted, behind only Yavapai’s 56 percent and Pima County’s 51 percent. Most counties had much lower turnout rates, including 44 percent in Maricopa, 39 percent in Coconino, 34 percent in Apache, 38 percent in Greenlee, 42 percent in Pinal and 44 percent in Graham.
Other northern Gila County areas recorded even larger turnouts than Payson in the presidential preference poll. For instance, an impressive 66 percent of eligible Whispering Pines and Sierra Ancha voters cast ballots; Tonto Basin had a 60 percent turnout, while 57 percent of Star Valley voters and 55 percent of Pine-Strawberry voters participated.