Christian voters are up for grabs this election season like they have never been in my lifetime. How up for grabs? Check out these numbers from Barna (no, not Dharma, Barna; kind of like the Christian Gallup):
Compared to recent presidential elections, the current leanings of the born again constituency have reversed. The new Barna study shows that if the election were to be held today, 40% of all born again adults who are likely to vote in November would choose the Democratic candidate and just 29% would choose the Republican candidate. The remaining 28% are currently not sure whom they would choose, preferring to make their selection on the basis of the candidate than strictly on the basis of his or her party affiliation.
If the election were held today, and all of the remaining candidates from both parties were on the ballot, the frontrunners among born again voters would be Hillary Clinton (favored by 20% of born again likely voters), Barack Obama (18%) and Mike Huckabee (12%). No other candidate reached double figures. Thirty percent of the born again likely voters said they were still undecided as to who they would choose.
Even among the evangelical sub-set of the Christian population, traditionally the most firmly conservative, we see some softness:
If the election were held today, only 45% of evangelicals say they would support the Republican nominee for president, and 11% would support the Democratic representative. Most significant is that a whopping 40% of evangelicals are undecided. This is extraordinary, given that 62% of evangelicals voted for the Republican candidate in 1992, 67% did so in 1996, along with 67% in 2000 and 85% in 2004.
How do you explain this apparent shift away from Republican fealty? I think it has less to do with new ideas from the Democrats (the ideas are the same; just the packaging is different) and more to do with the slim pickings from the Republicans. Just look at that enormous undecided number. Forty percent of evangelicals are still waiting for a candidate they like. Unfortunately, that candidate ain’t coming, and they’re going to have to settle for somebody who’s actually in the race right now.
I think the problem is that a lot of Bush’s most fervent supporters feel like they got blindsided by him at one point or another during his presidency. Now all the promises that this or that candidate is the “true heir to the Reagan legacy” mean nothing to them. This is why there’s to much rending of garments over McCain’s alleged lack of conservative bona fides. As Jonah Goldberg said, it’s not like we didn’t see Bush’s liberal side coming. we just chose to ignore it because he seemed to fit the mold we wanted. Now, in order to get hard-core conservative support, you’ve got to be really, really, super-mega conservative, and any evidence that you’re not is going to get scrutinized like the Zapruder film.
Oddly, though, the Bush legacy is also one of the reasons there’s so much support among the evangelical community for the decidedly non-super-mega conservative Huckabee. I think that now there’s a sense of “Well, if Bush didn’t come through for us, no one will,” among a lot of Christian voters. Conservative evangelicals figure that if they’re going to get screwed on stuff like immigration and spending, better to get screwed by somebody you can relate to, and who at least has good intentions. They think Huckabee’s the most likely to be solid on stuff like abortion and traditional marriage. So, they’re willing to give him a pass on a lot of stuff that they figure they’ll never get anyway.
I don’t know how all of this is going to play out, but it’s going to be interesting. Chaos!