Through a Glass Darkly

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With the Iowa caucuses barely seven weeks away, it would be nice if a blog like this weren’t clueless about about the role of religion in the 2012 election cycle. The problem, however, is that the big religion story in every cycle since 1980 has been the place of the religious right–which is to say, what’s up with white evangelicals. And this time around, they don’t seem to know themselves.

It would be helpful, of course, if most of the folks taking the surveys hadn’t decided months ago that because the big story of this election would be the economy, they didn’t need to pay attention to religious preferences. As a result, the data are few and far between. Thus, last week’s release from the release from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides a nice overview…if you don’t mind the fact that the survey was done between Sept. 22 and Oct. 4.

pres_pref1.pngAs you can see, white evangelicals disproportionately favored Perry over Romney; white Catholics showed disproportionate preferences for Romney and Cain, Perry and Gingrich (a Catholic) not so much. But over the past month, Perry has faded, Gingrich has ticked up, and Cain’s gone up and down. Who knows what the numbers would look like today?

Turn to the Public Religion Research Institute’s  2011 Amerian Values Survey and in place of preferences we get a few favorability ratings. PRRI realized that the volatility of the race required them to go back into the field to update their numbers. What we learn is that between late September and late October, Romney’s favorability among white evangelicals dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent, while Perry’s stayed in the high 50s. And that Cain, who didn’t seem to matter and so wasn’t asked about in late September, was way up at 70 percent in late October.

PRRI, which devoted much of its attention to assessing anti-Mormonism in the electorate, discovered more of it among young voters than old, more among Democrats than Republicans. What’s pretty clear is that there are two types of anti-Mormonism at work in the electorate these days: partisan and religious. Democrats express wariness about a Mormon in the White House not on religious or even ideological grounds but because they know that Mormons tend to be Republican. Evangelical wariness has to do with Mormons being, well, Mormon. The key consideration here is that there is little difference among liberals, moderates, and conservatives in their degree of concern about a Mormon becoming president.

The most intriguing little finding, which emerges from PRRI’s clever assessment of indirect anti-Mormonism, is that white mainline Protestants are almost twice as likely to possess a hidden concern about a Mormon becoming president than to express such concern openly. For everyone else, there was little difference between the direct and the indirect prejudice. Ah, those genteel mainliners!

Anyway, last Friday I was talking to my old pal John Green, who reminded me that at this point four years ago white evangelicals were still waiting to coalesce around Mike Huckabee. Sure enough, but at the moment, the only candidate possessed of anything like the popular enthusiasm that Huckabee generated among the evangelical rank and file is Herman Cain. As innocent of electoral politics, ignorant of policy issues, and beset by sexual assault claims as he is, Cain makes Huckabee look like the second coming of William Howard Taft. If Cain’s the final answer for white evangelicals, I’ll eat my hat.

Update: I missed Amy Sullivan’s good piece last Friday on the failure of evangelicals to coalesce–or, as she sees it, ever to get their guy (until after the fact, when they embrace a Reagan or a George W. Bush). Her point’s well taken, but there’s a dimension that she misses: the difference between (so-called) evangelical leaders of the religious right (the Falwells, Robertsons, Dobsons, Lands) and the rank and file. The leaders head organizations and try to play kingmakers; the rank and file do not follow the leaders but behave as a voting bloc with common interests and concerns. And over time the leaders matter less and less.

Last time around, they didn’t much like Huckabee; he was too much his own man, or seemed to be. But he appealed to the rank and file a whole lot. Had he just been able to expand his appeal beyond white evangelicals, he would have walked away with the nomination. The fact that the leaders–the guys Amy talked to–think that Romney is inevitable doesn’t necessarily mean that they are settling for something they don’t like. Many, like Land, would have been happy with Romney in 2008; hell, Bob Jones III actually endorsed him.

The real question, however, is not how the leaders of the religious right–the guys who expect to be players in the hoped-for Republican administration–play their cards, but who the rank and file decide to vote for. They will certainly vote for whoever the GOP nominee turns out to be (though they may not turn out in sufficient numbers to do so). Whether they will grit their teeth and vote for Romney in the primaries is another question entirely–and one still unresolved.