Between Pews & Polls

Article excerpt

Have values voters lost their clout?

HAS THE RELIGIOUS Right become irrelevant? Such a question would have been unthinkable only three years ago. According to political analysts across the ideological spectrum, the first big lesson of the 2004 election was that the parties were now aligned around values rather than economics. The second was that socially conservative "values voters" outnumbered their secular liberal counterparts, to the net benefit of Republican candidates. White evangelical Christians make up the GOP's largest single voting bloc.

You wouldn't be able to tell this by looking at the Republican presidential field. No candidate with a history of identifying with this bloc polls better than low single digits nationally. Ross Douthat of The Atlantic Monthly, observing that Iowa is somewhere "a semi-obscure social conservative ought to be able to make some noise," pointed to a Mason-Dixon poll showing "Smike Brownbuckabee" - a composite of Sam Brownback and former Mike Huckabee-at 13 percent. But in the 2000 caucuses, Alan Keyes won 14 percent by himself.

Instead the field is led by Rudolph Giuliani, a twice-divorced supporter of legal abortion and same-sex civil unions. Mitt Romney, the top-tier candidate who has worked hardest at courting religious conservatives, was pro-choice until 2005. Fred Thompson is also expected to make a play for these voters, but detractors are already digging into what they say is his own pro-choice past.

Among the leading contenders, John McCain has been allied with social conservatives the longest. But he has never seemed especially comfortable with them, famously blasting two Religious Right leaders as "agents of intolerance" during his 2000 campaign meltdown. They are equally offhand with him. And McCain's record has its blemishes, with votes for taxpayer funded embryonic stem-cell research and against the federal marriage amendment.

How did religious conservatives end up without a logical candidate? It isn't because their influence is on the wane otherwise. Even if organizations like the Christian Coalition have atrophied, white evangelicals cast the highest percentage of votes for Republican congressional candidates-72 percent - in 2006. Pollster Tony Fabrizio's vast survey of Republicans shows moralists, a different but overlapping category of conservative voters, making up the same share of the GOP today as in 1997 (24 percent, the largest group), while the ranks of economic conservatives have shrunk by nearly two-thirds.

If social conservatives coalesced around a single candidate, their choice would stand an excellent chance of being the nominee. But it isn't that simple. Religious conservative voters are much more diverse than their media image would suggest, and Christian Right leaders are far more pragmatic-and more solicitous of the GOP's electoral interests. The movement doesn't always support its own. According to one poll, only 6 percent of evangelicals support Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister.

This is nothing new. Pat Robertson was the first Republican presidential candidate to come directly from the Religious Right He did well in several states, coming in second in the Iowa caucuses, and collected over 2 million votes before dropping out But Robertson did so without the endorsement of Jerry Falwell and many other prominent Christian Right leaders, who were on board with the frontrunner, George HW. Bush.

In his obituary for Falwell, conservative activist Howard Phillips recounted that the Moral Majority founder had decided to back Bush as early as 1981. "I protested, saying that Bush stood for a great many things with which both Jerry and I profoundly disagreed," Phillips recalled. "Jerry replied that, by backing Vice President Bush early on, he would gain his confidence and have greater influence over his policies."

After 1988, this was Robertson's approach as well. He tacitly supported Bob Dole over the more socially conservative Pat Buchanan in 1996 and backed George W. …