By Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox
In a campaign that has featured any number of surprising twists and turns, there has been one constant feature of the race so far -- white evangelical voters have been consistently underwhelmed by their options. In fact, evangelical voters seem less enthused about their current slate of candidates than at any time in recent memory. Reflecting this fall season of discontent, the FAMiLY Leader, a conservative Christian organization in Iowa, opted not to make an endorsement in the race ahead of the Iowa caucuses next week.
And evidence of evangelical discontent abounds. Recent polling by Public Religion Research Institute shows that of the five top-performing candidates, only two -- Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney -- are viewed favorably among white evangelical voters. And only a slim majority of white evangelical voters have a favorable view either of the thrice-married Gingrich (53 percent) or the Mormon and formerly pro-choice Romney (52 percent). The other top candidates fare much worse. Nationwide, no more than one-third of white evangelical voters have a favorable opinion of Paul (33 percent), Bachmann (33 percent) or Perry (31 percent).
These lackluster favorability numbers for Gingrich and Romney do not compare well to white evangelicals' historical favorability numbers for Republican presidential candidates in the last two elections. As the 2004 campaign was beginning in earnest, white evangelical voters were solidly behind President George W. Bush, with nearly 8-in-10 holding a favorable view (Pew Research Center, February 2004).
In 2008, white evangelical voters were left with GOP nominee John McCain after Mike Huckabee, a southern Baptist and former preacher who finished first in the Iowa caucuses, dropped out of the race in March. McCain, who once famously referred to some important evangelical leaders as "agents of intolerance," was never beloved by white evangelicals. But even during the early stages of his campaign, before Huckabee's departure, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of evangelical voters viewed McCain favorably (Pew Research Center, February 2008). In the general election against Barack Obama, McCain went on to capture the overwhelming majority of evangelical voters (73 percent to 26 percent), performing nearly as well as Bush in 2004.
So what does this all mean for the Romney and Gingrich campaigns? White evangelicals' apathy is unlikely to result in dramatic shifts toward Obama. But mobilizing this large constituency is critical for any GOP candidate, and enthusiasm is critical for successful mobilization. In 2008, white evangelical Protestants accounted for nearly one out of every four voters, and 42 percent of McCain's total voters came from evangelicals. But white evangelicals may be hesitant to dedicate their considerable time, money, and organizational resources to an uninspiring candidate. However it pans out, these numbers suggest that the Republican presidential nominee may find him or herself in the difficult, unenviable position of being forced to simultaneously run two campaigns: a perpetual primary campaign to shore up support among this key constituency, alongside a general election campaign.