October 20, 2007

Whither The Evangelicals?

The Values Voters summit has all but completed, and Jim Geraghty and NZ Bear have brought us live-blog coverage of the speeches and events. The event culminated in a speech by Rudy Giuliani to the presumed-hostile Family Research Council audience, and they have responded at least warmly to the Mayor's address, as NZ Bear notes:

Giuliani received a standing ovation (like every other candidate to speak thus far). No sign at all of any negative reaction, and his standing O seemed at a genuinely enthusiastic one.

OK, my reaction. I think this was a truly great speech: nearly pitch-perfect for the audience and about as well received as could possibly be hoped for by the Giuliani camp. I'm about ready to declare it "brilliant", in fact. Given how potentially hostile this audience might have been, the fact that he received positive applause throughout his delivery that seemed honestly enthusiastic is truly remarkable.

Besides that, the substance was great. It was probably the best-written speech I've heard this weekend, full of great phrases that hit just the right notes.

For anyone who has heard the Mayor speak, this comes as no great surprise. He may be the most effective and inspiring speaker in the Republican primaries, and he can rally people around a banner very effectively. He also knows how to use language in compelling ways, such as when he says, "What you’re entitled to from me is what I really believe… and then figure out if I’m the right person for you to support,", or "Never let anyone tell you that your faith should not be part of your political values," or "Our Constitution is not antagonistic to faith or religion or God."

The question in this primary is whether the evangelical bloc is willing to consider its vote on an ecumenical basis. The latest CBS poll, conducted this past week, seems to indicate more flexibility than one might think from this important GOP voting bloc. (This poll, focusing on Republicans, doesn't have the same sampling problems as their general polling.) The evangelicals appear just as likely to support the most electable candidate as any other group of GOP voters:

Evangelicals appear conflicted when it comes to Giuliani, who leads in national polls and is gaining strength in the key early primary state of New Hampshire. Giuliani supports abortion rights and, during his tenure as New York City mayor, supported expanding the rights of gays and lesbians - positions evangelical voters overwhelmingly oppose. Only 29 percent of white evangelical voters said they could vote for a candidate that disagrees with them on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Yet, when asked about Giuliani specifically, these same voters seem more flexible. Sixty-one percent of white evangelicals said they would at least consider voting for Giuliani if he were the Republican nominee in 2008, with 29 percent saying they would “definitely” vote for him. Only 17 percent said there was no way they would vote for Giuliani, while 22 percent said it was too early to judge. And 61 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote for a candidate with less conservative views than them in the general election if they believed that candidate would win.

That last number is close to the overall result. 64% of Republican primary voters would support a less-conservative candidate in the primaries who could beat the Democrats in November 2008. It shows that evangelicals have a more rational take on the primary candidates than some of their national leaders.

Part of this can be attributed to the perception held by evangelicals that none of the candidates share their commitment to faith. Even Mike Huckabee gets almost twice as many people who say that he doesn't have strong religious beliefs as say that he does (28%-15%) despite his status as a Christian minister. In fact, Huckabee scores only as highly on the Yes poll as Rudy Giuliani among evangeicals, and lower than Rudy among all Republican primary voters. John McCain and Mitt Romney score highest, in the 30s, in both groups, but at least as many say they don't have strong religious beliefs, either.

Fred Thompson, meanwhile, actually scores lower than Huckabee on the perceived strength of his religious beliefs among evangelicals -- and yet they prefer Fred over all of them. Thompson garnered 29% of the evangelical vote despite only having 13% consider him strongly religious, and three points over Rudy for the nomination. Quite obviously, the strength of individual religious belief has not played a big role in evangelical support -- and while Fred beats Rudy among evangelicals, Rudy still gets 26% to come in second place, while McCain only gets 15% and Romney 7%.

So whither the evangelicals? It appears that they have pushed past the personal and moved towards the practical. If Rudy can convince them that he will keep his word on upholding the Hyde amendment, support parental notifications, and incentivize adoptions while appointing strict constructionist judges to the federal bench, he could appeal to that pragmatic instinct. The evangelicals apparently have begun to consider the effects of losing the White House to Hillary Clinton and want to do their best to keep their own agenda on the table past 2009 -- and they have no chance for that in a Democratic administration.


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