A number of people have asked me why I think that the religious right hasn’t found a candidate. The supposition is that if the religious right came around and supported someone like Mike Huckabee or Sam Brownback, they could be the nominee. Here is my attempt to answer that question.
First, the process starts with natural selection. Only very recently has there been a solid case for Huckabee being the obvious candidate of the religious right. In Q1 and Q2 Brownback outraised Huckabee and was about tied in the polls. Until Ames, the argument for preferring Huckabee was hard to ground in solid facts. (Now it is a lot easier)
Second, I think that there is a degree of sectarianism. This has been at its most explicit in the whole absurd media debate about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. But really. Nearly everyone I know who is a strong Huckabee advocate is an evangelical Christian. Nearly everyone I know who is a strong Brownback advocate is a conservative Catholic. It was a great feat of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to get these people working together. If the leaders were to intervene in this fight, then they might threaten the foundation of their coalition. Furthermore, Brownback could have argued, Catholics are a swing vote, while Baptists are not. Many swing states are also Catholic states. (Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.) Not so far Baptists. (Note that JFK’s campaign viewed their candidate’s Catholicism as an asset in a general election. In a deep sense, being able to win a primary in a Baptist state, the example was West Virginia, was when the deluge broke in the 1960 Democratic primary) In other words, Brownback could have argued that picking him would expand the size of the coalition.
Third, the leaders of the movement have a clear hierarchy of preferences:
- Support the candidate who wins the White House. Call this the George W. Bush case. Might be the Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney case.
- Support the candidate who wins the primary but loses the general. Call this the Hillary Clinton case or the Mike Huckabee case. It may also be the Thompson or Mitt Romney case also.
- Oppose the candidate who wins the primary, but then be forced to support the candidate in the general. (But probably get no love from the White House if the candidate wins) Call this the John McCain case.
- Oppose the (GOP) candidate in the primary and the general who wins the White House. Call this the Rudy Giuliani case.
Clearly the last two are unacceptable to any interest group leader. They simply lose access when, eventually, their followers will, to some extent, rally around whoever is in the White House. The leader is marginalized over time.
The other two cases are the interesting parts. I don’t know anyone who thinks that Brownback and Huckabee could really win a general election, although that is shifting for Huckabee to some extent. Huckabee would face his own problems; in some sense, Mike Huckabee is to the Club for Growth what Rudy Giuliani is to James Dobson. So conservative Christian leaders are sitting down and asking themselves:
- Can Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney win the nomination?
- Can they win the general?
If the answer to (2) is "no", then the right strategy is to back whoever allows them to build the strongest organization. Perhaps you could call this the Bob Dole strategy? But if the answer to (2) is "yes", then they have to figure out which pony to pick, or, at least, which pony not to kill. And, again, there are reasons, in both candidates, for the followers not to follow. In the case of Mitt Romney, it is his religion. (note that I am not defending that, just saying that it is a reality) Increasingly, Fred Thompson has disappointed religious right leaders on gay marriage. And these are echoes of a past that is even more problematic for them.
So you get a hodgepodge. Some people pick the purists. These people seem to be state level family group type of people. Some people make compromises. For example, yesterday Gary Bauer endorsed Fred Thompson. (not the first time that Bauer has done this. He also endorsed McCain in 2000) A friend on the religious left but political center talked to Richard Land the other day about Thompson, and Land was not so happy with his earlier statements of such strong support. Others, like Lou Sheldon, pick Romney. (although, again, the word on the street is that Sheldon is getting some money. To quote a friend of Sheldon, "Lou doesn’t do anything if money isn’t involved.")
So, back to the original question. There are interest-group internal reasons for not picking a candidate. There are also questions of how the interest groups maintain power. These combine to make it very, very hard on interest group leaders. That’s just politics.