The Republican Party may have swept into power in Congress in the recent midterm elections, but now they are eyeing the White House and analyzing the strength of influence that the Christian vote will bring to bear in the 2016 presidential elections. Many evangelical Christians fall into the social conservative camp while some GOP leaders fear that their non-politically-correct stands on key issues could alienate some voters and prefer a more centrist candidate. The weeding out process is starting well in advance of the first primaries but the Republicans are already in the thrall of conducting a “Christian primary” to determine which presidential aspirant has the ability, public appeal and know-how to to stand the test of the campaign trail and come out on top.
The GOP knows that the Christian population in Iowa and South Carolina, which hold their primaries early, is large enough to be a significant factor in winning those races for the Republican Party. Potential nominees such as Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, Mike Huckabee and others are already setting the stage with Christian voters, establishing their sympathies with socially conservative evangelical viewpoints on key issues. Presidential hopefuls are participating in prayer, fasting and repentance events and scheduling gatherings where voters can get to know the Republican candidates and test the strength of their commitment to the conservative values that are most important to them.
The courtship between evangelical Christian voters and the budding presidential hopefuls has been a long-standing endeavor that has stepped up its efforts in the last several months to test the political waters. Faith-friendly voices such as Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum, along with Jindal and Huckabee have addressed crowds at faith-based fundraisers. They have spoken passionately about same-sex marriage, abortion, support for Israel and religious liberty, issues near and dear to the Christian conservative heart in the key states where the strength of the Christian vote could swing the election for or against the Republicans.
The Family Research Council’s president Tony Perkins notes that the sheer number of socially conservative candidates vying for the Republican nomination this time around is going make the race to the top “very competitive.” The danger of offering voters so many choices in the primary is the likelihood of splitting the vote so many ways that no candidate receives sufficient support to wage a credible enough campaign to take the lead over centrist candidates for the nomination and defeat the Democratic challenger. Uniting behind a few strong candidates would give the conservatives a better chance of winning the nomination over the more centrist candidates. Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats voices worry that splintering the Christian conservative vote could be fatal to the success of the Republican bid to take back the White House in 2016.
An analysis of entrance poll results in the 2012 Iowa caucus reveals that if evangelical Christian voters had coalesced behind Santorum instead of splitting their votes between the six Republican candidates, they would have given him a clear mandate of 84 percent of the socially conservative vote. The election could have played out completely differently if they could have reached a consensus and given him the boost he needed to take his campaign all the way to the White House. No one can say with certainty if conservative Santorum would have upset centrist Romney’s eventual nomination. Yet the winner of the early caucuses has a chance to capitalize on the momentum to shape public perception of his candidacy through the ensuing news coverage. The win paints him as solid presidential prospect with a believable chance of winning and that influences voters to take him more seriously during the remainder of the campaign. Therefore, American Family Association president Tim Wildmon points out that history will repeat itself if Christian conservative voters cannot come to some kind of agreement on backing one or two candidates with the best chance of defeating the Democratic nominee and a centrist Republican candidate will once again take center stage in the presidential campaign.
Behind the scenes, conservative leaders are deliberating on the best ways to escape the dilution of the power of the Republican vote that comes from splintering voter loyalties. They aim to encourage unity behind a candidate but know that it will be a difficult goal to achieve and expect a long, hard road to get there because of the deep loyalties and friendships that spring up between social conservative candidates, leaders and supporters over many years of working together. In the meantime, they want leaders and voters to have ample opportunity to interact with and hear the candidates so they have an accurate basis of comparison when it is time to make a choice.
President of Concerned Women for America, Penny Nance cautions though that a charismatic personality is just as important as having the right the stands on the issues about which social conservatives care. Winning the voters hearts with the right message and likeableness paired with the grit, the resources and the money will be what it takes to ride the campaign trail right into the White House. Candidates should not ignore other issues such as immigration, the economy and foreign policy either, but put together a comprehensive plan of governing that addresses all the issues that concern Christian voters as informed citizens of this country. In order to win the nomination, social conservative activist from South Carolina, Lisa Van Riper asserts, the strength of a Republican Party candidate depends on his ability to convince voters that he honestly believes what he is saying. He must have a clear and actionable plan to make it happen and the honesty and integrity to follow through and do as he promises. If the Christian conservative Republicans can unite behind such a principled candidate, they may finally be successful in landing the nomination and even the presidency.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser