Week to Beat?

December 27, 2011

Iowa voters will converge across the state next Tuesday to decide who they believe should be the Republican presidential nominee. With only one week left, many still seem unsure about who to support. Leading the pack in most polls are the two candidates who most benefit from the indecision--U.S. Representative Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Both have solid support from a little more than one-fifth of the Hawkeye Republicans, but neither is likely to jump very high and therefore need a divided field to stay on top. Paul's supporters are perhaps the most loyal, but he is highly disliked by most other voters. If a huge snowstorm hits Iowa next week, he could win big because his supporters will show up! However, he will struggle to win in a race with only a couple of other major contenders. Paul has been slowly and steadily rising in the polls because he is operating a good, traditional Iowa strategy (the photo is one I took of him in Iowa in August). In addition to building up the grassroots organization better than he did during the 2008 campaign--when he placed fifth in Iowa--he has also reached out to the key voting bloc of conservative evangelicals better this cycle (see post here). Since placing a close second in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, Paul has continued to use confessional politics to reach out to evangelicals. A recent campaign ad for Paul calls him a pro-life "man of faith" "who truly believes." In another recent ad, Paul's son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, praises Paul's "commitment to faith, family and the Constitution." Thanks to the efforts of Doug Wead, who led religious-political efforts for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Paul now works in biblical citations to justify various public policy positions--which is a common strategy with those using confessional politics. Paul also spoke to a group of 400 pastors last month at an event put together by religious-political organizer David Lane, who helped lead Perry's prayer rally in August (see post here). Paul's main rhetorical strategy in reaching evangelicals seems to be stressing his pro-life record. Although many of Paul's libertarian views have led some conservative evangelical leaders to criticize him, he might win enough evangelical voters to make the difference next week. He is helped by the fact that evangelicals are divided between former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (see post here).

Also benefiting from the divided evangelical vote, Romney has remained steady in the polls for months. He seems unable to build on his support, but will still do well next week as long as the anti-Romney Republicans split up their votes. Although Romney's problems with the electorate include the fact that he consistently flip-flops on issues, his Mormonism is also part of the problem. The concern about Mormons is a symptom of our age of confessional politics. Proving this, several conservative evangelical leaders recently criticized Romney's faith to justify not voting for him. Bob Vander Plaats, who leads the conservative evangelical group The Family Leader, referred to Romney's faith when explaining why he does not trust Romney. Vander Plaats, who recently endorsed Santorum (see post here), stated:

What Iowans want to know is, 'Be honest with us, who are you?' ... When you go to bed at night and bend your knees, who are you bending your knees to? ... To us, it's to our lord and savior Jesus Christ, and that's how we gain access to the throne of God. It's only through Him. Because we don't know enough about the Mormon theology. That is where some of that pause comes from.
Vander Plaats also attacked Romney for not speaking at events hosted by his group and other conservative evangelical organizations. Going even further, Brad Atkins, President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, claimed:
In South Carolina, Romney's Mormonism will be more of a cause of concern than Gingrich's infidelity.
He added that this is because Christian voters are willing to "pray their way through the issue of forgiveness toward a Christian" but "will struggle to understand how anyone could be a Mormon and call themselves 'Christian.'" Really?! Do Southern Baptists in South Carolina really trust a twice-divorced adulterer over someone who is Mormon? How are such religiously-motivated tests helping pick the most qualified candidate to be president? Gingrich, who is falling in the polls, and other Romney opponents this cycle have mostly avoided directly raising questions about Romney's faith--but they benefit from those who use confessional politics to attack Romney. Gingrich's campaign fired a staffer earlier this month because the staffer attacked Romney's faith. Craig Bergman, who had just been hired as the Iowa political director for Gingrich's campaign, had previously stated:
A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon. ... There's a thousand pastors ready to do that.
It was good for Gingrich to condemn such an attack, but Bergman's conclusion does not even seem accurate. Although a lot of pastors are ready to defeat Romney in the primary, it seems likely many of them would instead flip-flop and justify voting for Romney over President Barack Obama in the general election. This is what Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress did back in October when he sparked a controversy by endorsing Perry and attacking Romney's faith as a cult--but insisted he would support Romney over Obama if it came to that (see post here). As the examples of Paul and Romney demonstrate, this presidential cycle is seeing yet another strong dose of confessional politics in Iowa and beyond.