James Joyner at my occasional alternative haunt, OTB, discusses Mike Huckabee’s failure to gain much traction on the campaign trail with the Christian right’s leaders—who have seemed to prefer candidates like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani—despite his impeccable Christian credentials, a topic we ended up discussing in part during Friday’s southern politics class (as sort of an offshoot of our discussion about what the off-year elections mean for the GOP in the south).
I think much of Huckabee’s problem dates back to a conscious decision by the evangelical movement around 30 years ago. In 1976, evangelical Christians came out for “one of their own”—Jimmy Carter—but four years of Carter’s rule convinced evangelicals that having a fellow devout Christian in the White House was much less important than the policies the president would pursue, and thus they defected to Ronald Reagan, a divorced man whose level of religious commitment was barely discernible. Evangelicals have since voted for George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush, all three of whom cannot really be described as evangelicals themselves, even as Democrats have presented Southern Baptist candidates like Al Gore and Bill Clinton. In short, evangelicals learned from the Carter experience that voting instrumentally on the basis of policy was more important than voting for “the man” on the basis of his religious convictions. And, as the evangelical movement has aged and fragmented (and some leaders, such as Jerry Falwell have died off), there’s no single power broker who can sway enough votes to a candidate like Huckabee to matter much.
Perhaps if Huckabee can exceed expectations in Iowa he might have a shot at picking up more endorsements from the Christian right, but as long as he is mired in the lower tier of the GOP field and evangelicals remain satisfied with the policy commitments—to the extent they’ve even made policy commitments—of the more viable (and certainly less evangelical) candidates like Giuliani, Thompson, McCain, and Romney, I don’t see much movement happening for Huckabee.