A few weeks before last year’s presidential election, Mitt Romney held a high-profile meeting in North Carolina with the Reverend Billy Graham, patron saint of American Evangelicals. Graham declared, “I’ll do all I can to help you—and you can quote me on that.”
Graham’s organization followed up by placing prominent ads in a number of newspapers around the country in which he urged Christians to vote “for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles.” The ads didn’t mention Romney, but the message was clear.
Romney’s outreach to Graham was one of the few occasions on which Romney explicitly tried to connect with Evangelical voters, and it seemed to be enough to win over many of them. But Evangelical voters may in fact have played a key, even decisive, role in Romney’s ultimate defeat.
Romney matched George W. Bush’s extraordinary support among white Evangelicals in 2004, drawing 78 percent of their votes, according to exit poll results reported by CNN. What has gone largely unnoticed is that his success at the national level was not duplicated in key swing states. In Ohio, the percentage of white Evangelicals rose from 25 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 31 percent this year. According to CNN, Romney received only 68 percent of their votes in Ohio, slightly less than McCain’s lackluster campaign received in 2008, and a drop of eight points from the 76 percent who voted for Bush in 2004. Romney’s loss in support from Evangelicals in Ohio translated into nearly 115,000 votes, more than enough to lose the state.
According to exit polls in Colorado, Romney received 76 percent of the white Evangelical vote, the same as McCain but a precipitous drop of ten points from Bush’s 2004 support. This translated into more than 59,000 votes, which again lost him the state.
Why did Romney fail to draw more support from these voters? What was it that some Evangelicals wanted and didn’t get?
It is certainly possible that anti-Mormonism played a role. But it is also possible that Romney failed to attract more Evangelical support because he did not do more to cultivate it. Except for the meeting with Graham, he did not go out of his way to connect with Evangelical voters. This was nowhere more apparent than on the campaign’s official website, which prominently featured outreach groups for Catholics and Jews but listed nothing for Evangelicals. The informal “Evangelicals for Mitt” website was not part of the campaign, and you couldn’t get to it from the official Romney website. It was almost as if Romney’s campaign was embarrassed to be seen linked to Evangelicals.
Of course, it’s all too easy to second-guess electoral failures after the fact, but Romney was not elected, and his campaign’s tepid outreach to Evangelicals was part of the problem. Yes, future Republican candidates need to work to broaden the base of their party. At the same time, they cannot afford to take for granted the millions of Evangelical voters who have supported Republican candidates in the past. Their support is not guaranteed.
Speaking as one of those Evangelical voters, I have pondered what I and my fellow Evangelicals would like to see from future candidates, and I have some suggestions.
First, many Evangelicals would appreciate candidates who can talk openly and honestly about what their faith means to them. Personal testimonies are a staple of Evangelical culture, and we often take our measure of a person by his ability to talk comfortably about his relationship with God. John McCain wasn’t able to do that, and neither was Mitt Romney. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both did, and it was one reason they received enthusiastic support from many Evangelicals, at least initially.
Second, a growing number of Evangelicals need further persuasion about conservative economic policies. Many Evangelicals are neither wealthy nor part of the ruling elites, and for them the Republican party often seems to be simply the party of big business and millionaires.
I still remember a conversation my wife and I had in 2008 with another Evangelical couple who complained they were “tired of being told to vote for Republicans just because of abortion.” They were both strongly pro-life, but they ended up voting for Obama because they were concerned about health care and jobs being shipped overseas. They were convinced that Republicans cared only about corporations. Although George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” ended up being too wedded to big government for my taste, at least Bush tried to articulate his policies in terms that many Evangelicals could appreciate.
Evangelicals are heavily focused on their families, and one way to address their concerns in this area is to explicitly champion economic policies that help families. During the primaries, Rick Santorum did this by proposing to triple the personal exemption for dependent children. The reaction of some business-oriented conservatives was telling: They derided Santorum’s plan as “social engineering.” Perhaps, but at least Santorum understood the need to defend tax policies with something more than the mere claim that they are good for business.
Third, many Evangelicals would like candidates who aren’t embarrassed by Evangelical views on social issues. The Republican establishment, including Romney, spent much of the last election running away from issues like abortion. They mistakenly believed that if they never spoke about social issues they would broaden their base of support.
But politics abhors a vacuum, and if a candidate does not offer his own positive vision on social issues, the stupid comments of others (Todd Akin, for example) will fill the void and dominate the news cycle. Without a positive vision of your own, you will be forever playing defense, never a good position in politics.
This truth applies not just to the handling of abortion but to other hot-button issues such as evolution, which is turning into one of the secular media’s favorite “gotcha” questions for Republican politicians. Witness the post-election drubbing received by the usually eloquent Marco Rubio after he tried to answer a question about the age of the earth.
The vast majority of Evangelicals are skeptical of unguided Darwinian evolution, but contrary to the stereotypes propagated by the media, they don’t demand teaching the Bible in science classrooms, nor do they require that politicians pretend to be biblical literalists. They do want public officials who are willing to defend the right of scientists and students to criticize Darwin’s theory without fear of reprisals. That means making public arguments for freedom of expression on the topic of evolution, and it means showing interest when dissenting voices are illegitimately suppressed.
Evangelical David Coppedge was harassed, demoted, and discharged by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab after he shared a few pro–intelligent design DVDs with colleagues. A coalition of pro-family groups appealed to the relevant congressional committees and subcommittees to ask NASA to investigate, but House Republicans didn’t even respond. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.
Fourth, Evangelicals would appreciate attention to religious liberty issues that affect them the most. On the whole, Evangelicals have no objection to artificial contraception, yet they have joined opposition to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, partly because the mandate also covers some abortion-inducing drugs and partly because of a sense of solidarity with their Catholic brothers and sisters.
But their own unique religious liberty concerns often receive little attention. For example, they place a much greater emphasis than do mainline Protestants and Catholics on staffing their social service agencies and educational institutions with those who espouse their faith. Similarly, many Evangelical charities explicitly include sharing the Christian message of salvation as part of their social service efforts for the poor. Evangelicals don’t expect the government to bankroll their evangelization efforts, but they do seek a level playing field and protections from bureaucrats who seek to punish them for so-called proselytizing.
Many Evangelical congregations also start out by renting public facilities for their meeting places. Thus, efforts such as the one waged by New York City schools to prevent churches from renting their facilities on the same basis as do other groups are of grave concern to Evangelicals, especially African-American and Hispanic Evangelicals, whose congregations may not have any other places where they can afford to meet.
Many Republicans (including some conservatives) fear that paying more attention to Evangelical voters will prove politically toxic. Underlying their fear seems to be a caricature of the movement as a collection of judgmental rubes and fanatics that could have been adopted wholesale from the New York Times or the Huffington Post. That so many in the Republican establishment have adopted this caricature is part of the problem.
In reality, candidates who engage Evangelical concerns with shrewdness can at the same time build bridges to other voters. According to surveys, defending freedom of speech on evolution will attract support across racial, ideological, and partisan divides. Framing economic policies in ways that show their benefits for ordinary workers will address concerns shared by many non-Evangelicals. Championing the access of African-American and Hispanic Evangelicals to public facilities will earn the trust of the very demographic groups Republicans need in order to survive.
The presidential candidate who understands that Evangelicals are a help rather than a hindrance in a future campaign will be well positioned to forge a new governing coalition.
John G. West is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and editor of The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.