The EFM Feature

I’ve been reading some of the stuff over at The American Spectator regarding Mayor Giuliani and 2008, and a further thought just came to mind.
Over the past few days, the debate has swirled as to whether a significant number of social conservatives would, in a Giuliani-Clinton race, either stay home or vote for a third party. I agree with folks like Tony Perkins that a sizable number would do that. But I think the problem is actually much worse than that. I think a sizable number would also vote for Senator Clinton over Mayor Giuliani.
I know the likely response: “But, she’s Hillary!” Fair enough; she is, and lots of people out there who can’t stand her. However, I think this group has decreased in both absolute size and in ferocity since her husband’s presidency ended. I don’t have any data for this, but I think it’s unquestionable that her image has softened, and I also don’t think it’s very controversial to say people have short memories.
I also think that conservative evangelicals are a much more diverse group than most commentators seem to realize. We don’t speak with one voice and we don’t move in a giant herd. You would think our behavior so far in the current campaign–splitting our votes among pretty much all the major and minor Republican candidates–would get that message across, but it hasn’t. Most of the reporting still dwells on what “evangelicals” will do, as if we all do the same thing. (For the most recent example, see TIME‘s “Why Evangelicals May Turn to Romney.”) Perhaps most significantly, there’s a real divergence between younger and older evangelicals. The latter group is much more inclined to vote on the basis of tried-and-true issues like abortion and marriage; the first still thinks these are important but typically looks for something more, and an overarching positive agenda. This has been reported to some extent, and we’ve called it Evangelicalism 2.0.
I don’t think Senator Clinton is the dream candidate for these younger, slightly different evangelicals. But I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that some will vote for her.
The reason why is tied, ultimately, to a further observation about social conservatives in general, and conservative evangelicals in particular. The observation is: Most of us vote primarily based on social issues, even if younger folks define them more broadly, and many of us are economically illiterate. For instance, a recent poll showed that a majority of Republicans favored significant restrictions on free trade. I’ll bet you there were a great number of evangelicals in that number, because in my experience, most of us vote for fiscal conservatives not because we really care a whole lot about fiscal conservatism, but rather because the socially conservative Republicans we vote for also happen to be fiscal conservatives. (Okay, at least some of them do. The rest have given us the present state of Washington.)
I’m not saying this portrait is all inclusive. I personally care a great deal about economic issues and am quite conservative on them. There are lots of other evangelicals like me. But I would suggest we’re not the whole group, and we’re probably a minority.
So, summarizing the claims I am making about conservative evangelicals:
1. A significant number are not so virulently anti-Clinton that they would never vote for her in a million years.
2. A significant number do not vote solely on the basis of whether a given candidate is pro-life or opposed to “gay marriage.”
3. A significant number will not vote for a given candidate simply because he is a fiscal conservative, and may even be hostile to fiscal conservatism unaccompanied by social conservatism.
Now, combine these ideas with the way Senator Clinton and Mayor Giuliani talk about religion. One goes out of her way to speak respectfully of faith and emphasize her Methodist background; the other jokes about “praying like a lawyer” and says quite pointedly that his religion doesn’t “direct” him.
Are you trying to tell me that the first candidate–Senator Clinton–isn’t going to be able to pick off a notable number of evangelicals?
Let’s not forget that her husband snagged one-third of white evangelicals in 1996, at the height of anti-Clinton paranoia. We’re twelve years past that now. I think she can do better than that, because she can purport to share evangelicals’ values more plausibly than Mayor Giuliani, he has no advantage over her on social issues, and quite frankly her fiscal liberalism is probably attractive to many economically illiterate evangelicals.
Folks, I think we’re drastically misstating the potential problem we face next year. It’s not just that the Democrats could triumph due to some of our people staying home or voting for a third-party loser. If I’m anywhere close to the truth, they would have a real chance to pick off some of the GOP’s core voters if we nominate the wrong guy. And while it might be nice to be competitive (supposedly) in New Jersey, it’s no help if we lose Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia–just as we did to another Clinton in 1996.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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