For the past several election cycles, the Christian right has been trying to coalesce behind a socially conservative candidate in the primaries in an attempt to defeat the establishment candidates. In 2012, it was Rick Santorum who managed a razer-thin victory in Iowa, only to go on and be thumped everywhere else. In 2008, Mike Huckabee held the mantle but fizzled out after a few primary contests.
In 2016, Christian leaders are hopeful that a uniting candidate can overcome the establishment and bring social issues to the top of the ticket. However, this year’s crop seems far more divided with several candidates courting the Evangelical vote.
Report from US News:
This time it’s going to be different! That’s the cry of social conservatives as they try to rally themselves around a single candidate this year, flexing the conservative right’s muscle against the dread establishment.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Actually, don’t, because you have.
Here’s Trip Gabriel writing in today’s New York Times: “Fearing that Republicans will ultimately nominate an establishment presidential candidate like Jeb Bush, leaders of the nation’s Christian right have mounted an ambitious effort to coalesce their support behind a single social-conservative contender months before the first primary votes are cast.”
The undisputed leader of the Christian right back then was the Christian Coalition’s (pre-Abramoff scandal) Ralph Reed, who was riding high after evangelicals helped power the 1994 GOP sweep. “Reed has been careful not to anoint any of the contenders for the 1996 Republican nomination as the coalition’s chosen candidate,” the Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Ron Brownstein wrote in January 1996. “Instead, he wants as many of the candidates as possible to pledge support for the coalition’s agenda, confident that for every one of them elected, the cause of religious conservatives will be advanced.” The upshot of course was getting “Doled,” sparking the every-four-years scramble to line up behind a single candidate.
Maybe this time truly will be different. But more likely while the social right prays for a Santorhuckacruz to emerge to defeat the establishment powered goliath Jeb Bush, the likeliest outcome is Rick, Mike and Ted split the movement like the Red Sea.
The author names Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz as vying for Christian votes. I’d argue that Ben Carson, who polls higher than many in that list, is also in that category. That’s a lot of candidates who all have a slightly different appeal to “values voters,” as they’re often called as a voting bloc.
The deeper the values voter bench, the more difficult it will be for social conservatives to rally behind a single candidate. For example, if these four simply split the vote in a large field, Iowa will easily be taken by Scott Walker or Jeb Bush. Beyond Iowa, the road gets tougher with the next chance in South Carolina.
The only hope for a consensus social conservative is to winnow the field in Iowa and New Hampshire which will setup a values voter showdown in South Carolina.