Some take the surge by GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum as a convincing sign that the evangelicals are back. They tipped the scales and put George W. Bush back in the White House in 2004 and conservatives are giddy at the thought that they could have a decisive impact on the 2012 election; decisive, that is, for the GOP. The joy is premature. Santorum has not won a major primary in a major primary state. The Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri caucuses where arguably conservative evangelicals did help put him back on the presidential map were too narrow, limited and skewed in terms of vote numbers to be any kind of accurate gauge of the force evangelicals can or will bring to boost a GOP presidential candidate.
The starting point for getting a feel for how the evangelical vote will play out in 2012, and for whom, is to determine just who is an evangelical, and more importantly, how many there are of them. Countless polls and surveys have come up with wildly conflicting and confusing characterizations of whom and what is an evangelical. Is the evangelical designation based on beliefs, pronouncements, personal declarations of faith, denominations, or, of most interest to politicians, a willingness to vote for a candidate based on their beliefs and values?
In 2004, that meant that an evangelical was a devout churchgoer, a passionate defender of the traditional family, vehemently opposed to abortion, gay rights, especially gay marriage, sex education, and was a war hawk. Bush strategist Karl Rove unabashedly stoked the culture and social value wars to inflame and ultimately stampede conservative evangelicals to the polls. How many were there? The numbers are conflicting, and amounts to little more than guesswork. The estimates ranged from as little as 7 percent of the adult population to nearly 50 percent.
Whatever the actual number of conservative evangelicals, they did make a difference in 2004. But 2008 was a far different story. A danger sign for the GOP that evangelicals would not be a decisive factor in tipping the 2008 election came when the Reverend Rick Warren had to fight to get more than a few members of his mega Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, to approve letting then presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama grace the dais at his church. There was some grumbling from the flock, But Warren persisted, and the recalcitrant evangelicals came around; at least, they didn’t publicly complain. Obama in great part helped the sell. He made it plain that he’d pull out more stops than any other Democratic presidential candidate in recent times to court the evangelicals. His oft professed testament of faith and tout of traditional religious values got a hearing from some evangelicals. Whether they actually pulled the lever for him or not was less important than the fact that he was able to neutralize and diffuse their past knee jerk opposition to his candidacy. Obama had simply picked up the political signs about the disunity among evangelicals from the 2006 mid-term elections. And that many young evangelicals were more worried about the economy, the war, poverty, HIV/AIDS and global warming than the wedge issues of abortion and gay marriage.
Then one-third of white evangelicals broke ranks and voted for Democrats. This didn’t mean that they had completely made peace with the Democrats. But it was a major departure from the past, and sent a shudder through the GOP.
The other problem was GOP presidential candidate John McCain. He was not Bush. He did not have ballot measures in several key states banning gay marriage to energize conservative evangelicals that Bush had in 2004. He made no overt or subtle appeals to evangelicals to turn the 2008 election into a referendum on America’s moral values. The inept, half-baked, clumsy effort of VP candidate Sarah Palin registered barely a pulse beat among evangelicals, and it was quickly dampened by McCain.
This doesn’t mean that evangelicals, no matter what designation, can’t flex their political muscle again. In a survey by the Detroit News in 2005 following Bush’s reelection the question was asked whether churches should have more influence in politics. Nearly sixty percent agreed. The majority of them were Republican leaning, and there is always the prospect that a cultural war issue could unexpectedly explode during the campaign. A hint of that came with the flap over Obama’s initial ruling on contraceptives. He made a quick and dept pirouette on it when he saw the potential danger a morals value issue could pose for his reelection.
The estimated sixty to eighty million Christian evangelicals are arguably too big, too important, and too politically strategic to ignore. Gingrich momentarily in the South Carolina primary and Santorum know their potential. But potential is one thing, showing up at the polls in big enough numbers to make a major difference in 2012 is another thing. There’s as yet no evidence that 2012 will be even a remote rerun of 2004 for the GOP.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson