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How important are a presidential candidate's moral values?

Will Rick Santorum's focus on social issues hurt his chances of winning the Republican nomination for presidency?

Kai Ryssdal: We've reached, for now at least, the end of the long and winding Republican primary debate trail. Last night's session in Phoenix was the last one on the schedule.

So by now, everyone's got a pretty good handle on what they're looking for in a candidate, right? And candidates know what voters are looking for?

If only.

Attitude Check is what we call our partnership with Gallup. Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief, is with us every week to help us understand what Americans are really thinking. Frank, good to talk to you again.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: About these debates last night -- it was interesting, to say the least, to watch what could be the last debate, and it was interesting also to watch Rick Santorum. He's the guy who's been in the lead; he's won a bunch of states in the past couple three to four weeks. And I wanted to ask about his approach -- his approach has been restoring our moral values. He's very plain-spoken about that. What do we know about what voters think when they listen to Rick Santorum talk?

Newport: Well, that's not a great approach. In fact, to get at it, we simply asked people: Would you rather see a candidate that you are confident can fix the economy, even though you disagree on moral issues -- or do you want one that you agree with on moral issues, even if you're not confident that he can fix the economy? Guess what? Two-to-one margin: People say we want somebody who can fix the economy. And that's true actually, Kai, even among Republicans. So Santorum would be well-advised, based on these data, to get off the social issues and to really focus -- particularly if he wants to be in the general election -- on what's the number one issue, and of course that is fixing the economy.

Ryssdal: Well parse the data for a second for me, Frank, and talk to me about religious voters in the Republican base.

Newport: Clearly that's Santorum's key constituency. Our data show he does much better among Republicans who attend church weekly than any other group. He really trumps Mitt Romney among that group. But even when we look at that group of Republicans who are the most consistent church-goers and the most religious, we still find -- although the gap's lowered some -- they would still rather have a candidate that can fix the economy rather than one that they agree with on moral issues.

Ryssdal: Let me take a turn here to a candidate who is also worried about the economy, has the advantage of incumbency -- the president -- and something that could wind up hitting him: gas prices. What are you paying for gas?

Newport: We pay in New Jersey -- of course you have to get premium, it's higher -- but it's $3.80. Regular, we're down to $3.50, $3.40, a lot lower than out there in California, clearly.

Ryssdal: Yeah! I saw $4.27 on the way in this morning. And my question to you is what do we know about gas prices and presidential elections?

Newport: We don't really see a high correlation between a president's approval rating and gas prices. And of course, a president's approval rating is the best predictor of re-election. Take Obama right now: gas prices have been going up as you and I just talked about, and yet his approval rating is steady as it goes, right there in the mid-40s. We don't see any hit on that. Our last time, Kai, that we asked 'What's the most important problem facing the country?', 1 percent mentioned gas prices. Back in 2008, we had had 25 percent or so who had mentioned gas prices when gas went up then.

Ryssdal: Wow, really? Wow.

Newport: So, so far, our conclusion is we're not seeing a big hit yet on Obama or on anything because of the gas prices, but of course, we'll wait and see what happens.

Ryssdal: Yeah, things change. Because when it's $4.50, right, then somebody's going to be paying a political price?

Newport: Yeah, there's a ratchet effect, I think, which means that if the prices are where we've seen them before, then we don't worry as much. But when it gets to $4.50, or we heard dire predictions of $5 a gallon, then all of a sudden, clearly it would have an impact.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of Gallup. The partnership that we do with them every week on the broadcast is called Attitude Check. Check out Gallup's data here. Frank, we'll see you next week.

Newport: My pleasure.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.
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