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April 09, 2014 12:41 PM Holier Than Whom?

By Ed Kilgore

I don’t often disagree with Paul Waldman, whose work I cite regularly. But sitting in at Plum Line today, he makes an argument about Republican politics and the Christian Right (in the context of an overtly religious Mike Huckabee speech in Iowa) that strikes me as missing an important distinction:

As I’ve written before, primary voters in both parties are ideological satisficers: they don’t seek out the most ideological candidate, they seek out the candidate who is ideological enough. Christian conservatives are, to a degree, the same way; they aren’t necessarily looking for the most religious candidate, just one who can assure them he’s religious enough, or at least understands where they’re coming from on matters of faith.
And it almost doesn’t matter where you start from. Consider what happened in recent elections. In both the 2008 and 2012 primaries, there were a zillion articles written wondering whether Mitt Romney could win the votes of evangelicals, many of whom consider Mormonism not to be a Christian sect, or even to be a cult. He worked hard to win them over, and whether their opinions of Mormonism ever changed, they eventually decided he was good enough. Something similar happened with John McCain in 2008. No one had ever known him to be a particularly religious person, but he went to the events and met the leaders, and in the end Republican voters got on board.

The “good enough” assessment of Mitt Romney and John McCain by conservative Christian voters was in the context of a general election contest with Barack Obama. For all the loose (and dishonest) talk among Christian Right leaders about their flocks “staying home” in 2008 and 2012 if their preferred candidates did not secure the GOP presidential nomination, it should have been clear to everybody all along that conservative white evangelicals would vastly prefer any Republican to Obama (or any other Democrat).

This is not the same as Christian Right voters making some calculation during the nominating process that Romney or McCain was “good enough” to win their allegiance prior to the general election. Waldman’s overriding argument is that the power of the Christian Right in the GOP presidential nominating process is overrated. It’s more accurate to say it varies from state to state. It is exceptionally powerful in two of the four “early” states, Iowa and South Carolina. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 despite an extraordinary financial advantage enjoyed by Mitt Romney, and would have probably won South Carolina as well had (a) he been able to raise any significant money, his characteristic problem, and (b) Fred Thompson, who had the national Right To Life endorsement, not made a final splash in that state which split the white evangelical vote and allowed McCain to sneak through to a plurality victory. And in 2012, Rick Santorum—an exceptionally weak national candidate by any traditional measure—won Iowa and took Mitt to the distance before succumbing.

This record sure doesn’t convince me that, as Waldman puts it, the pull of candidates with a particularly religious message “will have almost nothing to do with who becomes [the GOP] nominee.” Maybe the nominee will be someone like Huckabee, the current leader in national polls, and maybe it will be someone like Jeb Bush, whose “Establishment Republican” support should not make us forget he was the pol who made Terri Schiavo nationally famous. We just don’t know, but I personally think the commentariat is more likely to underestimate than exaggerate the power of the Christian Right in that decision.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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