Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Big Reason for the Big Fail

A lot of folks were flabbergasted last November by the election day results. All the polls showed Romney doing well and indications were that he was going to win. He thought he was going to win, the pundits on Fox News thought he was going to win, but he lost. A lot of the post-mortem analysis has focused on Republican difficulties with Hispanics and African-Americans, but not much attention has been paid to the Evangelical vote. John West at First Things makes a case for thinking that this vote, or rather the lack of it, played a key role, maybe even a decisive role in Romney's defeat. Even though Romney did as well among Evangelicals nationwide as George W. Bush did in 2004, he failed to do well with this group in the key swing states and that apparently doomed him:
In Ohio, the percentage of white Evangelicals rose from 25 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 31 percent this year. According to CNN, Romney received only 68 percent of their votes in Ohio, slightly less than McCain’s lackluster campaign received in 2008, and a drop of eight points from the 76 percent who voted for Bush in 2004. Romney’s loss in support from Evangelicals in Ohio translated into nearly 115,000 votes, more than enough to lose the state.

According to exit polls in Colorado, Romney received 76 percent of the white Evangelical vote, the same as McCain but a precipitous drop of ten points from Bush’s 2004 support. This translated into more than 59,000 votes, which again lost him the state.

Why did Romney fail to draw more support from these voters? What was it that some Evangelicals wanted and didn’t get?

It is certainly possible that anti-Mormonism played a role. But it is also possible that Romney failed to attract more Evangelical support because he did not do more to cultivate it. Except for the meeting with [Billy] Graham, he did not go out of his way to connect with Evangelical voters. This was nowhere more apparent than on the campaign’s official website, which prominently featured outreach groups for Catholics and Jews but listed nothing for Evangelicals. The informal “Evangelicals for Mitt” website was not part of the campaign, and you couldn’t get to it from the official Romney website. It was almost as if Romney’s campaign was embarrassed to be seen linked to Evangelicals.

Of course, it’s all too easy to second-guess electoral failures after the fact, but Romney was not elected, and his campaign’s tepid outreach to Evangelicals was part of the problem. Yes, future Republican candidates need to work to broaden the base of their party. At the same time, they cannot afford to take for granted the millions of Evangelical voters who have supported Republican candidates in the past. Their support is not guaranteed.
What do Evangelical voters want in a candidate? West gives his opinion:
First, many Evangelicals would appreciate candidates who can talk openly and honestly about what their faith means to them. Personal testimonies are a staple of Evangelical culture, and we often take our measure of a person by his ability to talk comfortably about his relationship with God. John McCain wasn’t able to do that, and neither was Mitt Romney. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both did, and it was one reason they received enthusiastic support from many Evangelicals, at least initially.

Second, a growing number of Evangelicals need further persuasion about conservative economic policies. Many Evangelicals are neither wealthy nor part of the ruling elites, and for them the Republican party often seems to be simply the party of big business and millionaires.

I still remember a conversation my wife and I had in 2008 with another Evangelical couple who complained they were “tired of being told to vote for Republicans just because of abortion.” They were both strongly pro-life, but they ended up voting for Obama because they were concerned about health care and jobs being shipped overseas. They were convinced that Republicans cared only about corporations. Although George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” ended up being too wedded to big government for my taste, at least Bush tried to articulate his policies in terms that many Evangelicals could appreciate.

Evangelicals are heavily focused on their families, and one way to address their concerns in this area is to explicitly champion economic policies that help families. During the primaries, Rick Santorum did this by proposing to triple the personal exemption for dependent children. The reaction of some business-oriented conservatives was telling: They derided Santorum’s plan as “social engineering.” Perhaps, but at least Santorum understood the need to defend tax policies with something more than the mere claim that they are good for business.

Third, many Evangelicals would like candidates who aren’t embarrassed by Evangelical views on social issues. The Republican establishment, including Romney, spent much of the last election running away from issues like abortion. They mistakenly believed that if they never spoke about social issues they would broaden their base of support.
I think West is right about this. A candidate who waffles and temporizes on matters of critical importance supposedly to himself and certainly to those who make up his base of support gains no one's respect. Romney was the victim of a massive smear campaign and a media all too pleased to facilitate it, to be sure, but any Republican is going to have to face that. What the Republicans need are candidates who not only have deep-seated principles but can articulate their beliefs cogently and fluently in a way that ordinary people can understand and in a way that makes the media look foolish when they try to misrepresent them, as they inevitably will.

What they need, in my view, is a man of Mitt Romney's accomplishment and character equipped with Newt Gingrich's intellect, eloquence, and ability to think on his feet. Sadly, none of their presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan has fit this description.