Evangelical Voters: How Much Clout?

According to a recent Pew poll, evangelical Christians believe they're losing influence in the United States. That's far from clear; From 2004 to 2008, the evangelical share of the vote in the Presidential election increased, from 20 percent to 23 percent. And at least by one survey, from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, "social conservatives made up the largest single voting block in the midterm elections" last year.

So, even if evangelicals are not necessarily the force they were in 2000, they're still powerful enough that no candidate would be so foolish as to ignore them. And their influence will still serve to move the GOP to the right on social issues such as abortion and gay rights -- although by how much remains to be seen. As I wrote here yesterday, most of the GOP candidates have been silent on the same-sex marriage law passed Friday in New York -- a passivity that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago when evangelicals wielded more clout. Still, all the major Republican candidates -- Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman -- have ostentatiously made time with the faithful, putting in an appearance earlier this month at Ralph Reed's two-day conference.

For Mitt Romney, attendance was mandatory. Evangelical leaders had such an infamous aversion to the man in 2008 they felt it necessary to warn McCain not to pick him as a running mate. The rank and file don't seem to care for Romney, either, but -- in his defense -- it's not exclusive to him. A full third of evangelicals simply don't like Mormon candidates. "White evangelicals don’t have vague anti-Mormon prejudices," writes Amy Sullivan, "-- they have very specific theological disputes that can’t be overcome by personality or even shared positions on social issues." That means you, Huntsman. "Right now, [Romney and Huntsman] are saying that it doesn’t matter, but that story won’t carry the day with evangelicals if they get further along," said Warren Smith, associate publisher of the vastly influential World magazine. "Like Obama had his race moment, they will have to have their Mormon moment."

Still, the Republican nominee will probably garner the lion's share of the evangelical vote, if only by default. Barack Obama may have done reasonably well the first time around -- winning a quarter of the white evangelical vote -- but there's a great deal of unhappiness with healthcare reform. And any points Obama may win for moves towards immigration reform -- no matter how small -- he will lose if evangelicals start to belive he has "betrayed" Israel.

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