How are American evangelicals likely to vote in the forthcoming presidential election? Timothy C Morgan analyses the power of their vote
On Election Day, Tuesday, 6th November, American evangelicals will face an uncomfortable choice: Selecting as their next President either a wealthy Mormon businessman who many voters do not identify with very strongly, or the incumbent liberal Protestant who many voters are reluctant to trust for another four years.
This sense of dissatisfaction with the Republican (Romney-Ryan) and Democratic (Obama-Biden) tickets is apparent among all voters, not just evangelicals, in new survey results released this autumn. The Pew Center for the People and the Press said that 54% of survey respondents were very, or fairly, satisfied with their choices. But 40% said they were not too, or not at all, satisfied. This is the highest level of dissatisfaction since the 1992 election in which the then incumbent, President George HW Bush, lost to Bill Clinton.
These measures of satisfaction are much lower than in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first African- American President after defeating Arizona senator John McCain. Back in 2008, 72% said they were very, or fairly, satisfied with their presidential choices.
Bush-era ‘gains’ lost
Unhappiness among American evangelicals parallels the political uneasiness of the wider American culture. But this sour mood among evangelicals is intensifi ed by the sense that on the culture wars front, the Bush era ‘gains’ they made from 2000-2008 (ie the progress on issues they see as having prime importance) are at risk. The Gay Rights Movement has gained ground, securing open service in the military and, in some states, legal gay marriage. Radicalised intellectuals criticise religious freedom. The federal government now funds research with human stem cells from surplus donated human embryos. (This is still under legal challenge.) None of these developments have been popular with conservatives.
During the Obama presidency, the Great Recession resulted in the loss of 8.4 million American jobs. The ObamaCare health plan requires people to purchase insurance coverage – a highly disliked aspect of the programme.
Meanwhile, conservative Catholics and evangelical organisations are jointly suing the Obama administration over the requirement to provide a contraception benefit. The unpopular war in Afghanistan has dragged on since 2001 without a clear victory or successful resolution. The 9/11-connected terrorists are still held at the Guantanamo prison, which Obama vowed to shut down.
These and many other factors have kept Americans on edge, even though the economic crisis in 2008 has passed by and the stock market is at a four-year high.
During 2010-2011, two polar opposite protest movements, Occupy Wall Street (left wing) and the Tea Party (right wing/libertarian), expressed huge popular outrage about the excesses of capitalism, big government, deficit spending, or the culture of entitlement among poor people. But both movements collapsed under their own weight and today, movement leaders have little to show for their efforts. One leading Tea Party Republican in Indiana, in a tight race for the Senate, has actually gone back on his pledge for a total repeal of Tea Party-despised ObamaCare.
This autumn, record numbers of Americans watched the political documentary film 2016: Obama’s America. The huge box office ($32m) for a political film has made this production the fifth most successful documentary film created. The film is based on the book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, written by conservative intellectual Dinesh D’Souza, currently president of King’s College, a small independent school in New York City’s lower Manhattan.
D’Souza, an Indian-American who maintains close ties to evangelicals, argues that Obama has devoted his political life to realising the socialist dreams of his late, anti-colonialist father from Kenya. Serving as narrator, D’Souza imagines what the United States will look like in the year 2016 with President Obama at the end of a second term: Iran possesses a nuclear weapon. The federal deficit spins beyond control. The American economy declines further. It goes on and on.
Despite the box office success, conservative and liberal critics have dismissed the film as deeply fl awed. One example that critics cite is the scene where D’Souza points to Obama’s 2009 return of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office to the British. (After 9/11, President Bush placed the bust there.) From this, D’Souza infers persuasive evidence of Obama’s anti-Western prejudice.
The reality isn’t quite as black and white. After moving into the Oval Office, Obama replaced the Churchill bust with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Later, the White House revealed it had an identical Churchill bust which has been there since 1965, during the Johnson years.
In 2012, the facts eventually trickled out long after the public’s first impressions were well established.
The bottom line is that even before the 2012 presidential primary campaign was under way, a huge majority of the conservative evangelical vote had made up its mind that they would never vote to grant President Obama a second term.
Opinion polls show that white American evangelicals are solidly against the re-election of Obama. Among these evangelicals, Romney is favoured by a four to one ratio over Obama.
It’s a different story for non-white evangelicals. Hispanic and African-American evangelicals on the whole lean toward Obama’s reelection. Opinion surveys reveal that black evangelicals will vote for Obama’s re-election, despite their opposition to gay marriage.
In spite of the size of the evangelical vote, an average of national opinion polls has persistently given President Obama a winning hand by 3 to 5 percentage points over Romney.
The Fall and Rise of Romney
Mitt Romney’s success in winning the 2012 Republican nomination for President is one of the great political comeback stories of the day. His nomination for President rests on a sea change in the public attitude about Mormons.
For a generation, there has been a slowly growing tolerance among American evangelicals for individual Mormons in public life. But there is far less change among evangelical leaders about Mormonism as a legitimate branch of Christianity. On occasion, evangelical leaders describe Mormonism in public as a harmful religious cult. During the primary season, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, spoke out against Romney’s candidacy, openly stating that a faithful Christian offered a better choice. But Jeffress changed his tune in time for the general election. Recently at a pastor’s meeting, Jeffress explained, ‘The fear among evangelicals is that this would legitimise a religion that we believe doesn’t lead people to God. And so those of us who have said yes [to Romney], we’re going to support him as the lesser of two evils, but at the same time, we’re making very clear that we’re doing so realising Mormonism is not Christianity.’
Others take a more nuanced stance. In a 2012 piece for Christianity Today, conservative blogger and journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway wrote: ‘It is entirely possible that in the next few months, the country will have its first Mormon President. No matter which man wins the office, it’s vitally important that Christians understand that his authority is limited to the secular realm and he should not be viewed as a spiritual leader.’
Understanding the Comeback
To better understand the Romney comeback narrative, turn the clock back to 3rd January 2007, when then Massachusetts governor announced his exploratory committee for president. For the next 13 months, Romney ran a national campaign, spending $35m of his own money in addition to raising and spending another $50m.
In January 2008, national polls showed Romney as the front-runner on the eve of the presidential primary season. But a few days later, he lost in the Iowa caucuses, then the New Hampshire primary. He later polled poorly in Florida and South Carolina primaries and lost front-runner status. He pulled out of the race in February 2008, endorsing Senator McCain. Many analysts agree that votes that Republican evangelicals cast in the contests in Iowa and South Carolina were a significant factor in Romney surrendering his front-runner status, eventually leading to the end of his campaign.
One of the lowest religious moments in that primary campaign occurred in December 2007 when candidate Mike Huckabee, the evangelical former governor of Arkansas, asked Romney during a public debate, ‘Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’ Though Huckabee later apologised for the remark, it created abrupt questions in the minds of primary voters and caucus-goers about Romney and Mormonism.
After the November 2008 election, Romney used leftover campaign funds to maintain an organisation, and several straw polls anointed him as front-runner. But in 2010, he took a personal poll of immediate family members on whether he should run again. Only his wife and one son favoured a second attempt. Romney was set against running again, until his wife and political confidantes persuaded him otherwise.
On June 2011, Romney’s comeback was in full swing. In announcing his candidacy, he said, ‘My number one job will be to see that America is number one in job creation.’ This message would fit perfectly with the times. The American jobless rate was at 9.2%. The largest economy in the world with 311 million people added a net of 18,000 new jobs that month.
Sixteen months later, the jobless rate has moderated. But the economy is the main concern on the minds of all American voters, especially women, who outnumber men on American payrolls today.
In August, the Barna Group released a survey of churchgoing Christian women. According to the survey, this group will represent 30% of all voters, making them potentially the largest share of voters on Election Day. Women surveyed said their greatest concerns were healthcare, taxes and employment policies. Abortion and gay marriage were near the bottom.
Interpreting these findings, David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, said, ‘During harder economic times, moral issues are less of a priority than the pressure of finances, jobs and survival.’
One big question for the 2012 presidential election is how younger voters (those born 1982-2004, known as Millennials) will vote, and how many of them will turn out on Election Day. Recent research about Millennial politics, economics, and religious practice provides a clearer portrait of this generation now coming of age.
According to 2012 surveys, a majority of Millennials (55%) identify with the Democratic Party. In this regard, they lean significantly more Democratic than Gen X or Baby Boomer generations.
Economically, the recession hit them at the dawn of their careers. An April 2012 survey found that one in two new college graduates were unemployed or underemployed. Millennials now carry a staggering $1tn in college related debt. Many a college educated Millennial is stuck in a low paid job. To make ends meet, about 21% of Millennial adults aged between 25 and 34 are living in a multi-generational household. This boomerang effect benefits parents and adult children, many of whom pay rent.
Religiously, Millennials are the most unaffiliated with organised religion ever, according to the Pew Social Trends survey. Many left the religious affiliation of their childhood (one in five). But religious convictions of Millennials are quite similar to other groups. They believe in God, the existence of heaven, hell and an afterlife. They pray to God, but with less frequency than their parents. How does this profile of Millennials translate into the 2012 presidential race?
To cut a long story short, the campaign of 77-year-old GOP congressman Ron Paul, the Millennial candidate of choice, peaked back in January. Paul took third place in the Iowa caucuses and second place in the New Hampshire primary.
The appeal of the grandfatherly Ron Paul puzzles American political analysts. For one plausible explanation, open the pages of The Record, the evangelical Wheaton College student newspaper.
Last winter, student columnist Andrew Thompson wrote: ‘Many adults wonder why Ron Paul is doing so well among the younger voting demographic despite his age and lack of fl ashy gimmicks. My guess is that he comes off as authentic. Sure he might say some crazy things, but they are the same crazy things he always says. You know what to expect. He doesn’t play the game like people expect, and for that reason he will likely never win on the national stage. But he does inspire the younger generation with his principled stances and consistent track record.’
Authentic, principled, consistent, and inspiring. These are attributes that any American voter would find attractive in a President. What hangs in the balance is the ability of Romney or Obama to persuade about 63 million voters (the estimated number of votes needed to win) that they have all those attributes and more.
On Election Day, evangelicals are likely to vote in large numbers, following past practice. Some of them will use the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument, like Texas pastor Jeffress, to guide their vote. Others will vote solely on the economy. Hopefully, a prayerful majority will set aside their discomfort and cast their ballot, confident of God’s everlasting sovereignty.