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Huckabee, campaigning in Newport Beach on Jan. 30, gets a native American necklace as he arrives at a fundraiser. (AP)

Huckabee and the Religious Right

ASK THIS | February 01, 2008

Why has Mike Huckabee been unable to sustain his momentum from Iowa, and what broader lessons about the Religious Right in American politics today might be gleaned from his campaign?

By Laura R. Olson
(864) 656-1457

Q. Why has Mike Huckabee’s momentum failed to carry over from Iowa to other states?

Q. What can Huckabee’s campaign teach us about the current status of the Religious Right in American politics?

Q. Can the GOP still count on the support of “values voters” at the polls in November?

As recently as September 2007, scarcely any political observers would have bet that former Arkansas Governor (and Southern Baptist pastor) Mike Huckabee ultimately would emerge as the winner of Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses. Huckabee’s candidacy caught fire in late fall when large numbers of Iowan “values voters” decided that they had finally found their man amidst a candidate field that many moral conservatives had found profoundly disappointing.

The long-shot nature of Huckabee’s presidential bid (he had little name recognition and appeared to many to be a “niche” candidate in part because of his previous career as a Southern Baptist minister) meant that he raised little money in the “invisible primary” that occurs well before any votes are cast.  Nevertheless, evangelical Protestants in Iowa rallied around “Huck” because they valued his folksy demeanor and his conservatism on socio-moral issues.  They rewarded his efforts to court them by turning out in large numbers (nearly 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers said they were evangelical Protestants) to support him on January 3.

Huckabee’s dramatic win in Iowa, however, has failed to translate into “the big mo” nationally.  This comes as little surprise in the context of the New Hampshire primary, as there are far fewer evangelicals in the Granite State than in Iowa.  Observers were a bit more surprised to see Huckabee finish second to John McCain in morally conservative South Carolina. Exit polls from both South Carolina and Florida indicate that other candidates—McCain, Mitt Romney, and (before he dropped out of the race) Fred Thompson—earned quite a few evangelical votes. Huckabee’s success in Iowa and his accompanying shortfalls in subsequent primaries and caucuses illustrate several important facts about today’s Religious Right. 

First, on its face the story of Huckabee’s candidacy illustrates the difficulty values voters had this time around deciding on one candidate who would best represent them. McCain is widely seen as too liberal; Romney never seemed to catch on (probably in part—but not exclusively—because he is a Mormon); Rudy Giuliani’s views on socio-moral issues were anathema to values voters; Sam Brownback dropped out too early to generate much momentum.

Second, the story of Huckabee’s candidacy demonstrates the essential fact that contrary to conventional wisdom, the values constituency espouses a diverse range of views on issues. Despite their relatively uniform views on abortion and other “values” issues, evangelical Protestants do not necessarily agree on issues that fall outside of this rubric.

To be sure, Huckabee’s supporters are social conservatives, but many are relatively moderate on issues such as the economy, jobs, the environment, and health care. His populist appeal on such issues resonated well with the evangelical Protestant component of Iowa’s electorate. Nevertheless, Thompson’s success in painting Huckabee as “too liberal” in South Carolina—and his resulting ability to peel off enough evangelical votes to ruin Huckabee’s chances in the state’s GOP primary—shows that there the solid core of the old Religious Right is still alive and well. The populist message that worked in Iowa was not conservative enough to work in South Carolina. 

Third, the fate of Huckabee’s candidacy highlights the Religious Right’s organizational diversity. Over the past decade, the movement has grown increasingly sophisticated and able to adapt strategically to different state (and even local) level political contexts. The values constituency enjoys widely varying levels of influence in different state party organizations, and the constituency itself is comprised of different types of voters in different states. In South Carolina, for example, a statewide network of graduates of the fundamentalist and profoundly conservative Bob Jones University enjoys a good bit of clout. On the other hand, in Iowa or Florida the median evangelical is at least one shade more moderate than would be the case in South Carolina. Thompson’s assertion that Huckabee was too liberal to be president truly resonated with many of the Palmetto State’s most conservative evangelicals. 

Fourth, we see the ramifications of the Religious Right’s current lack of a singular national leader (in the mold of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell or Rev. Pat Robertson) who can unite the troops at election time. This means almost by definition that all evangelical voters cannot possibly be on the same page politically. High-profile younger evangelical leaders, such as the Rev. Rick Warren and the Rev. Joel Osteen, have kept the politics of the old Religious Right at bay while focusing attention on a wider array of issues, including the environment and HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, none of the old lions of the Religious Right endorsed Huckabee. In perhaps the oddest development of all, Robertson himself endorsed the pro-choice, thrice-married Giuliani.

Might any of this mean that the Democratic presidential nominee could have some modest success courting values voters in the general election campaign? While no one should expect to witness a mass defection of the values constituency from the Republican Party, the Democrats could still hope to siphon off some of this portion of the electorate. Younger, ideologically moderate evangelicals who deemphasize the bread-and-butter issues of abortion and homosexuality might be “gettable,” especially if Barack Obama—who appeals to under-30s and is able to weave “faith and values” rather seamlessly into his rhetoric—is the Democratic nominee. Some traditional Catholics, who recently have been an important component of the values constituency, might also be swayed by a Democratic campaign that follows John Edwards’ lead in emphasizing the issue of poverty. In 2004, mobilizing values voters (particularly in “battleground states”) was one of the chief strategies of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. This time around, the calculus will hardly be so straightforward. 

Posted by July Canute -
02/09/2008, 06:51 PM

It seems very strange to me that Christians are fair game for political attacks as though we are a unique minority in America.

America has always been prodominately Christian and even today about 85% of the population claims to be believers.

Why are there no reports or discussions about the role of Jews in our government. Are you people unaware of the role that they play in government, media, champaign financing and behind the scenes?

Please explain how issues such as abortion or gay marriage take precedent over middle east holocausts and Gitmo?

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