(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?
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?
“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)