Gingrich and the evangelical vote

I'm usually not very good at political prognostication but last week I told my husband that I thought Newt Gingrich would win in South Carolina. He laughed at me. Well look who's laughing now! Actually, I have no idea who is laughing, but I do know that the entire DC political class of media and pundit types are freaking out about what happened. It was pretty interesting to watch Twitter reactions from all types as they process that Republican voters might not be ready to settle on Mitt Romney. So, are there any religion angles? Heck yeah there are religion angles! There's the fact that a bunch of evangelical leaders pushed their support of Santorum. Santorum overperformed on Saturday. Was that because of his support from some evangelical leaders? Or was it because of his debate performances? His general advocacy of issues that social conservatives care about? Do reporters even care?

Mitt Romney's widely regarded as failing to connect with voters. Is that because of his wealth? His somewhat recent conversion to conservatism? His style of speaking? His religion? Speaking of his religion, I stole this picture here from Daily Mail political reporter Toby Harnden who writes:

Not headlines Romney wanted as he arrives in Tampa - incl 1 about Mormons w word "cult" in it

Here's a link to the story. And Gingrich. He didn't just win evangelical support, he won everybody's support. He even did well among the group everyone said he'd perform poorly with: married women. (Here's a bit from the Wall Street Journal about how he performed well across all voting sectors.) How is it possible, some religion reporters asked, that evangelicals could support such a vile human being? Or as one New York Times religion writer tweeted:

For MANY, evangelicalism=cultural attitude, not actual conviction on how to behave: how else adulterous Gingrich win Xian-heavy S. Carolina?

I responded by suggesting the Christian teaching of forgiveness might play a role! But actually, I think there's another larger religion issue that is in play. This Reuters article from a week ago does the best job of explaining how conservative evangelical Christians were working through who to vote for. Here's how it begins:

These are desperate times for Newt Gingrich.

But this is the audience he's been waiting for: South Carolina's evangelical Christians, who he hopes will rescue his flagging bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

His message to them is direct and urgent: Christians are under attack, and Republicans shouldn't trust Mitt Romney to always oppose abortion.

"We will not tolerate a speech dictatorship in this country against Christianity," the former House speaker told a crowd of 300 in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Wednesday, railing against what he has called government intrusions on Catholic charities and other religious organizations.

The article gets better from there, asking specific questions about how Gingrich's past weighs on voters' minds as well as what they think of everyone else's negatives. It's well-rounded and simply reports what voters are thinking. And it sounds like they were thinking that Gingrich might do a better job advocating for them.

Back when Romney was leading in the state, the New York Times ran a story about how his religious views were significantly less of a problem there this time around. But even in that article it says that the issue that dominated voter thinking was ability to defeat President Barack Obama. Now all the pundits and the reporters are mocking South Carolinian voters about this, but exit polls showed that voters believed that Gingrich had a much better chance of beating President Obama than Romney did. So did Romney's religion come into play? Even the exit poll question designed to answer that might have some ambiguity.

Over in a nice round-up at Christianity Today, there's a good graph showing how people answered the question of how much a candidate's religious beliefs matter. Among those who answered that it mattered a great deal, Gingrich and Santorum dominated. Among those who said it only mattered somewhat, Gingrich and Romney fared best. Among those who said it didn't matter, Romney and Gingrich did the best. But what do we mean by "religious beliefs"? It may seem a silly question, but when a pollster asks that question, does the voter think "I want a Catholic?" or something like that? Or does it mean "I want someone who will fight bigotry against religious institutions?" Again, that Reuters story quoted evangelicals saying they don't think too favorably of Gingrich's marital failures but they do think highly of how he'll advocate for religious concerns.

The fact is that relatively few people make a decision to vote for anyone based on any one trait or position that the candidate has. It can be tricky to understand the complex decision-making that goes into a vote. Also, the temptation among reporters is high to come up with catchy narratives to explain the vote. (We all do it...)

I have to highlight an article that I thought did a good job of reporting the facts with the right dose of analysis -- coming from experts as opposed to cooked into the story. Here's the top of Dan Gilgoff's piece for CNN all about how Gingrich managed to win more evangelicals than his rivals:

If there were any doubts that Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married convert to Catholicism, could connect with the evangelical voters who make up the Republican Party base, Saturday’s South Carolina primary put them to rest, with the former House Speaker winning twice as many evangelical votes as anyone else in the race.

Evangelical Christians made up two-thirds of the South Carolina electorate on Saturday, and Gingrich took 44% of their votes, according to CNN’s exit poll.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who rode evangelical support to victory in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses earlier this month, each got 21% of the evangelical vote in South Carolina.

Gingrich got roughly the same share of the South Carolina evangelical vote as Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, did four years ago.

The former House speaker campaigned vigorously among evangelicals in the Palmetto State, talking about “values” issues and speaking to and holding conference calls with hundreds of evangelical pastors.

“Whatever his personal values may be, he certainly talked effectively and cogently to the kinds of issues that evangelicals care about,” said John Green, an expert in religion and politics at the University of Akron.

It packs a lot of different things in there without attempting to do too much. CNN also had this article which is the opposite of the 'Evangelicals in the Mist' stories we see so much of. It's headlined "Evangelicals in SC: Not What You Think" and basically says that evangelicals are not a monolothic voting bloc. Who knew?

And for a brief discussion of Catholicism here, I have to echo what one reader asked when submitting this story about "more than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians" who wrote an open letter to Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum "warning them 'to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.'" The reader asked us:

What's missing from this story? Oh, not much. Just minor details like the names and affiliations of the 40 people who are doing the warning.

What's the journalistic argument for leaving that out?

(second photo via shortformblog)

Please respect our Commenting Policy