Explaining McCain’s Success Among Evangelicals

The Huffington Post, January 20, 2008.

As South Carolina Republicans headed to the polls Saturday, an all too-simple storyline emerged in the press. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister who won the Iowa caucus, would have the evangelical vote, while Arizona Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War hero, would win defense conservatives. “It’s the Christian soldiers vs. the retired soldiers,” one observer summed up for the Wall Street Journal.

But McCain captured a quarter of evangelical voters when he won yesterday’s GOP primary according to exit polls, while Huckabee won only 40%. A recent conversation with Rich Cizik, who heads up governmental affairs for the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals, reveals that Christian voters are a more complicated voting block than the media seems to realize. Cizik speaks unhappily about the GOP under the Bush administration. “This has been an unholy alliance in which the evangelicals have given everything and gotten nothing in return.” But, he says, “It’s quite obvious that the next Republican in the White House will likely be someone with a very different attitude… John McCain or Mike Huckabee, at least in the case of those two, would be much more sympathetic.” (Cizik was speaking for himself, not for the NAE, which does not endorse candidates.)

Cizik’s favorable disposition to Huckabee’s campaign is expected. Huckabee is widely regarded as the evangelicals’ greatest hope in 2008. But his view of John McCain may come as something of a surprise. McCain is regarded as having dealt his 2000 campaign a deathblow a week after George W. Bush defeated him in a dirty South Carolina primary when he blasted Bush supporters on the Religious Right in a Virginia Beach speech. He condemned Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” in the political campaign, and expressed disdain for their opposition to his signature issue, campaign finance reform. “I don’t pander to them, because I don’t ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message. I believe in the cause of conservative reform.” Though not all evangelicals agree with Falwell and Robertson, McCain’s attack on the movement’s high profile leaders is believed to have ended any remaining hope that he could win over the key GOP constituency.

Looking towards 2008, McCain went to great lengths to repair relationships with the Christian leaders he had scorned in 2000. He met with Falwell in his Senate office and spoke at the graduation of the school Falwell founded, Liberty University. As the campaign heated up in the fall of ’07, he made a comment to Beliefnet that many greeted as bald-faced pandering. “I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles… personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith.”

Cizik’s openness to McCain explains why evangelical voters are more receptive than conventional wisdom would dictate. Now, Cizik is a different breed of evangelical leader than Falwell and Robertson. Indeed, he has weathered calls for his ouster by leading “family values” conservatives because he has championed a broader agenda that includes traditionally “liberal” issues like climate change. But if that issue is any indication, Cizik’s far more in sync with evangelical voters, 84% of whom favor global warming legislation. (Falwell, on the other hand, denounced global warming advocacy as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus” shortly before his death last spring.)

On a host of issues I happen to agree with him,” Cizik says of McCain, beginning with the issues that have most antagonized conservative activists. “I agree with him on campaign finance reform. I agree with him on immigration.” Cizik continues, “I agree with him on climate and the environment. I agree with him on Iraq, where he’s disagreed with the Bush administration [about the need for more troops]. I agree with him on [opposing additional] federal spending and earmarks and all these things. I agree with McCain on the sanctity of human life.

The truth is, the evangelical movement is not homogeneous, but divided on many key issues. While evangelical leaders have long railed against campaign finance reform because it curtailed their ability to influence elections, even Christian voters supporting Huckabee before he won Iowa expressed outrage with the big money that influences the Republican party. Immigration, similarly, splits the evangelical family. Though roughly two-thirds of white evangelicals tell pollsters they regard immigrants as a burden on society, some evangelical groups have come out in support of immigration reform or avoided the issue because of a lack of consensus.

Voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire — and, now South Carolina — responded to candidates who positioned themselves as outsiders. Christians want that change as much as any other rank-and-file GOP voter. While Huckabee’s Christian roots gives him a leg up among evangelicals, Cizik’s comments suggest why McCain can compete for these votes despite his complicated history with the evangelical leadership. “I just think McCain has been a solid leader and a maverick and an innovator,” Cizik says.