The Evangelical Vote in the US Republican Primaries

The Republican primaries show evangelicals aren’t a voting bloc US evangelical Christians are motivated not by religion alone, as their increasingly diverse voting pattern shows

By Marcia Pally

The Guardian UK Monday 19 March 2012

Rick Santorum’s flurry of victories in the US Republican primaries ‘is his reward for firming up his community-populist profile’. Photograph: Sean Gardner/Reuters The US Republican primaries just passed the halfway point. What’s going on with evangelicals? In a race where Mitt Romney is leading (winning 14 states), they seem sweet on Rick Santorum (nine states). Are they again a “religious values” voting-bloc outlier?

A closer look suggests they’re not a bloc at all. They supported Romney in New Hampshire, Maine, Virginia, and Nevada, as majorities in those states did. They tied Romney with Newt Gingrich in Florida, and with Santorum in Arizona. They supported Santorum in a February flurry, preferred Gingrich in the southern states of South Carolina and Georgia and nearly split three-ways in southern Mississippi and Alabama, as majorities did.

Commenting last month, Gary Bauer, president of the conservative American Values, noted: “These voters do not vote in lock step.” Indeed. Some vote on religious grounds most of the time. But most vote out of a mix of concerns shaped by income, education, and critically, local socio-political culture.

That means they’re not only “religious” voters but economic-cultural ones, like most of us, and that they span the Republican range from populist to business interests. Then there are those who vote Democrat. ABC News noted that the primaries “starkly draw the Romney/Santorum battle lines ahead” – with Romney winning business, wealthier, college-educated voters, and those who want a candidate with “experience” while Santorum won the working and lower-middle classes, high-school grads, and those seeking a “true conservative.” Ditto for evangelicals.

Where there is less populist tradition, in Maine, Nevada, and New Hampshire, evangelicals favoured Romney. We even have “Evangelicals for Mitt”. Where they are divided populist/business, the vote is also split. In Arizona, evangelicals voted 36% for Romney, 37% for Santorum. In Florida, 36% voted for Romney, 38% for Gingrich, who was there seen as the populist. Only 19% voted for Santorum, who there was the “religious” candidate.

Yet in certain regions, evangelicals also have a substantial populist tradition. The doctrinal emphasis on the individual will (in choosing Jesus, in pursuing the moral life), their persecution at the hands of Europe’s states and state churches, and the American history of frontier living and rebellion against “big government” in London make for a trinity of anti-government self-reliance. That makes them Republican. Lower income and education makes Republican-populism. In the 19th century, evangelicals were often radically populist – anti-banker, anti-landlord, pro-farmer and pro-agrarian reform. Three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908, they supported populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

In these areas, the candidate who has positioned himself as the populist hero has won. In Iowa, Santorum did and won among evangelicals, who preferred him (a Catholic) over co-religionists Rick Perry (14%) and Michelle Bachmann (6%). In South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, Newt Gingrich did – attacking Romney as the “vulture capitalist” – and he won among evangelicals as among all others.

The Santorum flurry since then is his reward for firming up his community-populist profile. In Michigan, currently fuelled by rust-belt populism, Santorum did to Romney what Gingrich had done in South Carolina: Santorum attacked Romney for supporting the banking but not auto-industry bailouts, which saved millions of jobs. Among all voters, Santorum landed just three points short of Romney in Romney’s home state and won among evangelicals. In Mississippi and Alabama, both Santorum and Gingrich had strong populist profiles, yielding near-ties. Romney earned a respectable third on “electability” in the general election.

If evangelicals were motivated only by religion, their voting would be more consistent across the demographic and geographic range. Yet neither is the evangelical vote simply cultural or economic. It’s a mix. As Evangelicals for Mitt write large atop their website: “We don’t have to choose between someone with our moral values or someone with economic expertise.”

If evangelicals don’t march lock-step in the primaries, most will vote Republican in November on economic, cultural and religious grounds. But not all. Since 2005, many have left the right. Growing concern about environmental protection and poverty reduction has put them in tension with Republican policy. In 2008, 27% of white evangelicals voted Democrat (a five-point rise over 2004); a third (32%) of evangelicals under 30 did. Two evangelical ministers helped write the Democrat party platform, and a third ran the Democratic nominating convention. These concerns may disperse the evangelical vote more widely than in the present primaries – for some, across party lines.