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Huckabee Fails to Keep Southern Evangelical Base United

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Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee started out his evening speech on Super Tuesday with two Biblical references, when in fact, his Biblical base is slipping--but not far away.

Huckabee is getting a lot of press attention for doing so well with Southern evangelicals, but if you examine vote totals and exit polls closely, it is clear that many conservative white evangelicals in the South have opted for "pragmatism" over "purism" within the Republican Party.

Huckabee represents "purism." McCain and Romney represent "pragmatism."

Let's start with baseline figures. Among white Protestant evangelicals, about 70% of those who vote generally turn out for Republicans, while 30% vote Democratic. No surprise there.

Over the last 30 years, about 15 percent of voters say they are close to the Christian Right, and 70-80 percent of Christian Right voters vote Republican. No surprise there.

Vote totals and percentages in Bible Belt states and their neighbors on Super Tuesday, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, show Huckabee doing well, but not as well as would be expected if conservative white evangelicals in the South were voting as a bloc. They are not. Huckabee held onto his Biblical base in his home state of Arkansas, but not elsewhere across the South. So while the pundits are noting how well Huckabee did among evangelicals in the South--which is hardly a surprise--few are mentioning that Huckabee did not manage to keep white evangelicals in line behind his candidacy.

This confirms the collaborative investigative report on HuffPost's OfftheBus with the somewhat misleading headline:

"Evangelical Power Vastly Diminished Headed Into Super Tuesday."

Not "Diminished," but certainly "Divided."

According to this excellent study:

After contacting nearly a hundred churches and interviewing more than 20 pastors and evangelical leaders, OffTheBus has uncovered a 'house divided', although that 'house' was never really united in the first place."

Exit polls show that some 40% of Republicans voting nationally say they are "evangelical" or "born again" in the broadest sense of the term. With Southern Republicans, however, roughly 70% say they are "evangelical," (it varies by state), yet in this group, only about 40-50% voted for Huckabee in the South on Super Tuesday.

Here is a simple formula--a bit rough, but not bad.

In the Bible Belt states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee, add up the vote percentages for McCain and Romney. If that combined total is more than the percentage received by Huckabee, there is a significant split among conservative white evangelicals. Do the same for Missouri. Note the variation by state. According to exit polls, Republicans voting for McCain tended to list the economy as their chief concern. These McCain voters clearly include a significant number of white evangelicals.

This illustrates two important points.

1). Not all Republican white evangelicals are part of the Christian Right socio-political movement.
2). For white evangelicals--Republican or Democrat--the economy and poverty are also moral values.

Sometimes hot button social issues such as abortion and gay rights are the most important "moral values" for Republican evangelicals in a given election--and sometimes issues such as the economy, political corruption, and opposition to the course of the war in Iraq are the most important "moral values." Oddly, as noted by Faith In Public Life, Democrats are seldom polled about their faith, even when asked about "moral values." (See here)

That some white evangelicals are swing voters is nothing new. In the 2006 midterm election, a small but significant number of white evangelicals were swing voters who switched from the Republicans to the Democrats over the latter two issues of war and corruption.

The variation in the percentage of white evangelicals voting Republican or Democrat between two elections is dubbed the "God Gap." (View a chart on the God Gap here).

Both the larger group of conservative white evangelicals, and the subset that is the Christian Right, have played key roles in electing Republican candidates to public office over the past thirty years. Muddled polling about "moral values" voters--which can include Republicans and Democrats or progressives and conservatives--has obscured this reality. Time and time again, careful scrutiny of polling data shows that in some elections and in some states, conservative white evangelicals provide the margin of victory for Republicans. Analyst John C. Green and a few others have been pointing this out for many years, but few reporters pay much attention.

Steven Waldman on BeliefNet has noted about this set of swing voters:

Keep in mind, this is not "religious right" voters who shifted [in 2006] . It's moderate and liberal evangelicals who were concerned about the war and corruption.& They're also conservative on gay marriage and abortion but were more worried about these other issues.

So for me, the bottom line is that there was indeed a meaningful shift among churchgoing Christians toward the Democrats and that there is a real dissatisfaction among many moderate evangelicals with the Republican Party. But because it was triggered by two issues--Iraq and corruption--that can't be counted on in 2008, the Democrats will have to take some fairly dramatic steps to solidify these temporary gains.

This time around, John McCain represents for many Republicans the protest vote over the economy, keeping more white evangelicals inside the Republican Big Tent. For Republican-leaning white evangelicals for whom the War in Iraq is the most important moral value in this election race, the Democratic candidate might offer an acceptable alternative and prompt some swing votes.

In November, most white evangelicals will undoubtedly vote for the Republican presidential candidate, no matter who wins the nomination. But this is still a complicated situation. A McCain-Huckabee ticket, however, could pull voters to the polls across several core Republican constituencies mobilized around the economy and immigration. McCain is also attractive as a candidate among some Democrats and Independents.

Mark J. Rozell puts the role of the Christian Right in this process in perspective:

First, the Christian right is here to stay. In a decade of studying and writing about it, I have spoken to many reporters, and when they don't want to know why the movement is on the verge of extinction they want to know why it is succeeding in its plan to take over the GOP or the nation. Both story lines are exaggerations.

Surveys show that the core constituency of the movement has remained rather steady since the late 1970s, even as its policy fortunes rise or fall with changes in government leadership and public opinion.

Second, analyses of the Christian right should be focused less on national figures and organizations and more on grassroots activism, above all in the South. News of the Christian right has for years gravitated to the big-name personalities who are media savvy, controversial, or both. Yet the real impact of the movement lies with its activist base....

While some Republican white evangelicals swung to vote Democratic in the 2006 midterm elections, at the same time, the Christian right brought a large number of evangelicals, Black and White, to the polls. In tight races, this makes a difference that can cost a candidate an election.

Democrats can pick up votes if they learn to mobilize and recruit white evangelicals around the "moral values" issues of the war and the economy, but they need to do this without selling us out on the issues of reproductive, LGBTQ, and immigrant justice. So far Democratic Party leadership inside the Beltway has not demonstrated the ability to do this.



Portions of this post were filched from articles I wrote for other folks: here, and here.


See, for more information:

Chip Berlet & Pam Chamberlain. 2006. Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture Wars in 2006. Political Research Associates.

Chip Berlet, "Midterm Election 2006: Pundit Watch," Talk to Action.

Chip Berlet, "The Christian Right, Mid-term Elections, & Social Movements," Talk to Action.

John C. Green and Mark Silk, "Why Moral Values Did Count," Religion in the News, 2005, (Spring).

Scott Keeter, "Evangelicals and the GOP: An Update. -- Strongly Republican Group Not Immune to Party's Troubles," Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, October 18, 2006.

Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green, "Wars and Rumors of Wars: The Contexts of Cultural Conflict in American Political Behavior," British Journal of Political Science 36(1), (January 2006): 61-89.

Andrew Kohut, "The Real Message of the Midterms," Pew Research Center, November 14, 2006.

Mark J. Rozell, "What Christian Right?" Religion in the News, Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1.

Steven Waldman, "The Smaller God Gap," On Belief, BeliefNet,





Election cycle disclaimer. These are my personal essays written on my own time.