Bye-bye, Rick and Huck! Why GOP evangelicals deserted their old pals (COMMENTARY)

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Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks to the crowd after formally declaring his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an announcement event in Cabot, Pennsylvania, on May 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SANTORUM-FAITH, origianally transmitted on May 28, 2015 or with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 6, 2015.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks to the crowd after formally declaring his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an announcement event in Cabot, Pennsylvania, on May 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SANTORUM-FAITH, origianally transmitted on May 28, 2015 or with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 6, 2015.

(RNS) One of the most fascinating developments of the already-amazing 2016 presidential election campaign has been the complete failure of two GOP candidates with a prior track record of attracting evangelical voters: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

In polls, Huckabee sits at 2 percent and Santorum at 1 percent or less. Both are unlikely to survive more than a month or two longer.

So what happened? Why are such voters now favoring pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and first-term Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, not to mention billionaire hell-raiser Donald Trump? What does this tell us about those all-important “values voters,” and about this election cycle?


READ: Winning God’s vote: boundaries for the candidate/clergy courtship in ’16 


Republican U.S. presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 6, 2016.

Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas on Dec. 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 6, 2016.

I posed this question to my online community, which includes a significant number of actual conservative evangelicals, as well as numerous close observers of American politics. Here are several of the most cogent explanations, with my comments following:

“Cruz and Carson tap into a sense of resentment much more so than Huckabee and Santorum.”

Yes, I don’t think anger and resentment are the native language of either Huckabee or Santorum.

“Huckabee and Santorum are has-beens who have run before” and failed.

Yes, fresh faces do seem to do better in American politics. See: Bush, Jeb. But also: Clinton, Hillary.

“Pro-life orthodoxy is necessary but not sufficient for the values voter today.”

Yes, I get that; Huckabee and Santorum basically have only the social conservative agenda, and this election’s social conservatives want more than that. This is a very important development, I think.

“Supporting Carson could ease racial tensions … and ‘prove’ that there are no diversity problems within the Republican Party.” Another person suggested that the same kind of thing was happening with Cruz, vis-a-vis being Latino.

Now that’s a fascinating idea. Most white evangelicals want to feel good about their anti-racist commitments. But does that really explain the success of Carson and Cruz among white evangelicals?

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, flanked by Republic presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, left, Attorney Mathew Staver, second right, and her husband Joe Davis, right, celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson, Kentucky on September 8, 2015. U.S. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Tilley *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on September 10, 2015, or with RNS-STETZER-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 30, 2015, or with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 6, 2016.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, flanked by Republic presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, left; attorney Mathew Staver, second right; and her husband, Joe Davis, right, celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson, Ky., on Sept. 8, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Tilley
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Sept. 10, 2015, or with RNS-STETZER-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 30, 2015, or with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 6, 2016.

“The Kim Davis show hurt Huckabee and showed him willing to do anything to grab a headline.”

Don’t forget that Cruz was in eastern Kentucky that day, too.

“Huckabee … pretty much condemns you to hell if you don’t agree with his views.”

I am not sure there is much of a factual basis to this claim. But I do think this comment may mean that Huckabee sounds a bit too moralistic, too much like the Southern Baptist preacher he used to be.

“Carson can stay calm, cool, and collected during the worst emergencies.”

Another commenter pointed out that Carson was already a folk hero in parts of the conservative Christian world before running, and so was able to build on that. Carson’s biography and outsider status in an anti-politics year does matter for some evangelicals.

“The GOP base is punishing the political establishment.”

That’s plausible. It explains Carson; and even though Cruz is a senator, he has been a bomb-thrower, so he gets a pass.

My main takeaway is that while a winning GOP presidential candidate needs to be plausible for Christian social conservatives on their core issues, the “mere” social conservative candidate cannot win. At least not this year.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His RNS blog is titled Christians, Conflict and Change)

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  • George Nixon Shuler

    This part: “the “mere” social conservative candidate cannot win. At least not this year.” is on the money, especially since social conservatism is losing on all fronts. This campaign is set in the “Anger” stage of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief (the others being Shock, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance – those are in chronological order with Anger right in the middle). The vision of America right-wing whites had but which never had any basis in reality is gone forever, thank God, but the dead-enders don’t like that. We are also at parts of “Bargaining,” too, as shown by Ross Douthat’s columns requesting a conditional surrender in the Culture War. Santorum, despite being overtly fascist, is too much aw-shucks Pat Boone type loser for this year; Huckabee, too, is an embarrassing loser. David, now that Carson is descending you need to update this: the whiny white male vote is probably about evenly split between Trump and Cruz. The religiously…

  • eastFLDoc

    Americans need results this time around. They are looking for strong leadership with a tough exterior. Someone who can pursue complex negotiations, bring back mfg. Someone who can deal effectively with both parties. Cruz can’t do that with even his own party. True, Huckster and Sanitorium– every dog has its day– yours is over. Surely, there will be work for you in the new Trump administration!

  • samuel johnston

    Right Doc. Vote for a swaggering brat.