Bye-bye, Rick and Huck! Why GOP evangelicals have deserted their old pals

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Ted Cruz, shown here at an Austin, Texas rally, is aiming his presidential campaign at evangelical voters.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Ted Cruz, shown here at an Austin, Texas rally, is aiming his presidential campaign at evangelical voters.

 

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is also a former Southern Baptist pastor, an experience he said prepared him for dealing with the real-life problems of ordinary people. Photo courtesy of Huckabee for President Inc.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is also a former Southern Baptist pastor, an experience he said prepared him for dealing with the real-life problems of ordinary people. Photo courtesy of Huckabee for President Inc.

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 governor Mike Huckabee, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. In current polls, Huckabee sits at 2% and Santorum at 1% or less. Both are unlikely to survive more than a month or two longer.

So what happened? In particular, why have two candidates whose base was once quite strong among conservative evangelicals (and conservative Catholics, for Santorum), not been able to attract much conservative Christian support this time around? Why are such voters now favoring pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and first-term Texas senator 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 their several most cogent explanations, with my comments following.

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

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

–“Cruz and Carson tap into a sense of resentment much more so than Huckabee and Santorum.” Me: I can see that with Cruz, less so with Carson, at least most days. But 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. Me: Yes, fresh faces do seem to do better in American politics. See: Bush, Jeb. But see: Clinton, Hillary.

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

–“Ben Carson, because he’s black. Supporting Carson could therefore 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. Me: Now that’s a fascinating idea. I do think that most white evangelicals want to feel good about their anti-racist commitments, that the bad old days of racism are fully overcome. But does that really explain the success of Carson and Cruz among white evangelicals?

Ted Cruz, shown here at an Austin, Texas rally, is aiming his presidential campaign at evangelical voters.

Ted Cruz, shown here at an Austin, Texas rally, is aiming his presidential campaign at evangelical voters.

–“I think the Kim Davis show hurt Huckabee and showed him willing to do anything to grab a headline.” Me: Don’t forget that Ted Cruz was in eastern Kentucky that day, too; Mike Huckabee just wouldn’t let him get near the microphone. Perhaps that was good luck for Cruz.

–“Huckabee…pretty much condemns you to hell if you don’t agree with his views,” while Carson and Cruz do not. Me: I am not sure there is much of a factual basis to this claim. But I do think this comment (from a young conservative Christian in Georgia!) may mean that Huckabee sounds a bit too moralistic, too much like the Southern Baptist preacher he used to be, and that is a no-go in today’s climate, perhaps especially among millennials.

–“Carson is a pediatric brain surgeon, and can handle people at their worst. He can also 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. Me: I do think that Carson’s biography and outsider status in an anti-politics year does matter for some evangelicals.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at South Bethel Church in Tipton, Iowa, on November 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at South Bethel Church in Tipton, Iowa, on November 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

–“The GOP base is punishing the political establishment,” ergo it’s a no-go for old political faces like Santorum and Huckabee. Me: That’s plausible. That 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.

Your thoughts? Join the conversation by commenting with civility and intelligence below, or look me up on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Dan Barker

    It’s nice to see that many evangelicals are becoming less myopic on social issues — if that is indeed true. In my opinion, the younger generation is much more tolerant and accepting of diversity (including sexual inclination as well as theology). The “old time” preacher types are making themselves less relevant in a time of social progress. We all — most of us — want a world with more understanding, more harmony, personal freedom, and less violence. It seems like the experiment of the arch conservatives has run its course, with disappointing and divisive results. We are electing leaders for ALL of society, not just evangelicals. I never thought the President should be our “Pastor in Chief.” That would be the opposite of religious freedom. When evangelicals broaden their focus beyond personal ideology, that is a true “blessing” for the nation.

  • samuel johnston

    If the evangelical’s selfish resentment secures the nomination of Donald Trump, it will prove that they do not really care about their fellow citizens, or the country that they leave to their children.