With several primary contests completed and Super Tuesday fast approaching, Forum Associate Director Mark O’Keefe and Senior Research Fellow John Green discussed the vote of evangelical Christians in the 2008 presidential election. Green and O’Keefe spoke about evangelical voting patterns in the early primaries, evangelical response to Mitt Romney being a Mormon, the changing composition of the Republican and Democratic fields and Democratic efforts to reach out to evangelical voters.

John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Publishing, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A:
Will evangelicals rally around a single candidate?
Evangelical voting patterns in the early primaries
Evangelical response to the Romney campaign
The effect of candidate withdrawals
Are Democrats resonating with evangelicals?

John Green
John Green

Does anything that has happened so far suggest evangelicals will rally around a single Republican candidate?

It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s possible that it could. There are at least two candidates in the race besides Mike Huckabee that have, at one point or another, drawn significant evangelical support. One of them is Mitt Romney and the other is John McCain. Here is where a little history is helpful.

Back in 1999 and 2000, George W. Bush did not start out as the candidate of evangelicals; in fact, most evangelical leaders were endorsing other candidates. But as the campaign progressed, evangelicals began to rally around Bush, and by the time he won the nomination over McCain, a large majority of the evangelical community was in his camp. Bush has been able to maintain that level of support among evangelicals since then even in the face of declining popularity in recent times. So it’s certainly possible that evangelicals who have been coalescing a little bit around Huckabee could coalesce around another candidate, such as McCain or Romney.

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To be fair, it is worth noting a counter example where evangelicals failed to rally around a single candidate. In the 1996 Republican primaries, evangelicals were divided among the candidates, including Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. Dole eventually won the nomination and received only lukewarm support from evangelicals.

What does it take for a candidate to cultivate enthusiasm among evangelical voters?

For evangelicals to become enthusiastic about a candidate, three things have to fall into place. One is they have to be minimally comfortable with the issue positions of the candidate. Most evangelicals could feel minimally comfortable with a McCain or a Romney and certainly with a Huckabee. But there are two other factors that are also important. One is electability. A few months ago, hardly anyone thought that Huckabee was electable, but he has, of course, risen in the polls and done well in some of the early contests. Most evangelicals are likely to see McCain or Romney as electable, particularly if they do well in the primaries that will follow here in the spring.

Then there’s a third factor, and that’s personal appeal. Huckabee certainly has connected with some elements of the evangelical community but clearly not with all of it. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith has been a bit of an impediment to that kind of connection for him, and John McCain’s history of feuding with leaders of the Christian right has also been a bit of an impediment.

So if one looks at the front-running Republican candidates, two of the three things that would need to happen for evangelicals to rally around them are plausible, if not in place. But personal appeal would still have to develop. As far as I can tell, there is not a lot of indication that that has taken place, although evangelicals do tend to have fairly favorable views of both Romney and McCain.

The other important candidate in the race is Rudy Giuliani, who has an issues problem. Many evangelicals disagree with Giuliani on social issues, andsome of them may be unwilling to support him because of his stance on abortion and gay rights.

Are you seeing any patterns in the way evangelicals have been voting thus far in the presidential primaries?

Early last year, polls by the Pew Research Center and other polling organizations showed evangelicals to be very sharply divided among the various Republican candidates, with no real enthusiasm for any particular candidate. But that has changed a bit in that Mike Huckabee has cultivated a degree of enthusiasm in many of the early primaries, such as in Iowa and again in South Carolina. Huckabee received a plurality of the votes of white, born-again Protestants in these states.

If there is a pattern emerging, it has been very uneven. Huckabee has had a couple of primaries where he has done very well, but he has had some primaries where he didn’t do very well at all. For instance, in New Hampshire, not only did he place a distant third in the field, but he and John McCain were tied with 28 percent each among evangelical voters. And then, in Michigan, Mitt Romney actually won the evangelical vote over Huckabee, 34 percent to 29 percent.

Florida will be another test for Huckabee. It will be interesting to see if he can obtain a majority of the evangelical vote. Now that’s hard to do in a multi-candidate field because it doesn’t take many candidates getting 10 percent or so of the vote to make it impossible for any one candidate to get a majority.

There has been much discussion and speculation about how evangelical voters might respond to Romney’s Mormon religion. Can we come to any conclusions yet?

Well, the polling evidence from last year very clearly indicated that Gov. Romney faced a challenge with evangelicals. And a lot of the things he’s done in his campaign, including his prominent speech in Texas about religion in American politics, clearly have been aimed at meeting that challenge. In the early going, we see some evidence that he did successfully meet that challenge. In Michigan, which is in some sense his home state, he won the evangelical vote. He has gotten significant portions of the evangelical vote in some of the other states, which suggests that he has been able to meet that challenge.

But he didn’t do very well in Iowa or South Carolina. And if one looks at the county-by-county breakdown of the vote for Romney and Huckabee in those states, counties with a lot of evangelicals gave Romney very few votes. In those states, Romney did well in counties that had relatively few evangelicals. Additionally, in Iowa, Romney did well in counties that had a lot of Catholics. So at least in those two states, there is some indication that the concerns about Romney’s Mormon religion had an effect at the ballot box.

Now that Fred Thompson has withdrawn, do we have any indication of who his evangelical supporters may adopt?

If one assumes that the pundits are right and that Thompson is a consistently conservative Republican, then his dropping out may benefit other more conservative candidates. According to the most recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, both Huckabee and Romney are perceived by Republican voters as being more conservative than John McCain, who is perceived as more moderate.

So if those perceptions hold, then Thompson’s supporters may go to Huckabee or to Romney. Given some of the challenges that Romney has with evangelicals, it may well be that Thompson’s evangelical backers go to Huckabee.

If Huckabee withdraws at some point, how may that impact the political calculus for evangelical voters?

The fact that Huckabee has come this far with relatively little organization and a real lack of funds is because of the enthusiasm of some evangelicals at the grassroots level who have been campaigning for him on their own initiative. That kind of enthusiasm is difficult to shift from one candidate to another.

If Huckabee is defeated or withdraws from the race, there is a real possibility that some of those activists and voters may be discouraged and may not flock to another candidate’s banner. In fact, they may remain discouraged into the fall election.

But another possibility is that they may shift to another GOP candidate. When people become deeply involved in political campaigns, they quite often develop a taste for the process and they want to continue being engaged in politics even though their favorite candidate dropped out or was defeated. It is interesting to me that there appears to have been relatively little public animosity between John McCain and Mike Huckabee.

This suggests that it’s at least plausible that if Huckabee’s followers stay involved in the process, they may find John McCain more congenial than some of the other GOP candidates.

That would be an interesting development when one considers that in his 2000 campaign McCain was highly critical of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling them “agents of intolerance.”

McCain is still feuding with some leaders on the Christian right, and that very well could be a problem for him. The thing about Huckabee’s evangelical supporters, though, is they seem to have a different approach to politics. A lot of the anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail suggests that these are folks that may like to see a different relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party.

First, Huckabee supporters appear to be concerned with a broader range of issues. They are certainly conservative on the social issues, but they appear to adopt more moderate positions on economic and foreign policy issues.

Second, many of the prominent evangelical pastors and leaders that have endorsed Huckabee have decried the hard-edged politics of the Christian right. So it may very well be that Huckabee’s supporters may have less of a problem with McCain than, say, a James Dobson or a Pat Robertson would have with McCain. That also suggests that some, or even a large portion, of Huckabee’s supporters may well find McCain a congenial choice.

In recent presidential elections, including the 2004 general election, evangelicals have voted overwhelmingly Republican. Is there any indication that any of the Democratic candidates are resonating with evangelical voters?

There is some indication that the Democrats are doing a little better with evangelicals. The Clinton, Obama and Edwards campaigns have made a real effort to appeal to religious voters, including evangelicals. Some of the head-to-head matchups we see in the polls show both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama doing a bit better than John Kerry did with evangelicals in 2004. Whether those patterns will persist in the 2008 general election is hard to say. There is some indication that evangelicals have positive feelings toward Barack Obama; the conventional wisdom is that this is because he is comfortable talking about his faith.

There is some evidence that evangelicals may be less committed to the Republican Party here in the early going, thus giving the Democrats an opportunity to secure more evangelical votes than in the past. This pattern seems to be particularly strong among young evangelical voters, that is, evangelical voters under the age of 30.

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