How does the press account for Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise in the Republican polls? We at Get Religion have mentioned his appeal to evangelicals (here and here) and ordinary voters, among other things. Peter Slevin and Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post wrote an interesting story about Huckabee's appeal to homeschool advocates. But no reporters I am aware of have focused on Huckabee's appeal to largely unknown evangelical pastors, as Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News did in an excellent story:
Mike Huckabee's political rise has been fueled by a vast network of local Christian leaders largely unknown to the general public but powerfully influential in evangelical circles.
That strategy -- methodically rolling up the support of these grass-roots networks -- has paid big dividends, helping catapult Mr. Huckabee ahead in Iowa and boosting his prospects in the Republican field.
"All these leaders that most of the national media don't recognize, they're all coming to Huckabee," said supporter Kelly Shackelford of Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute.
On Sunday, the former Arkansas governor was in the pulpit of a San Antonio megachurch, where he made no apologies for the religious tone of recent holiday campaign commercials and delivered a sermon on the birth and resurrection of Jesus.
Although Mr. Huckabee lost some big-name endorsements, including 700 Club founder Pat Robertson, his campaign has successfully tapped the organizing apparatus of numerous religious figures whose local endorsements carry considerable weight.
Slater named many of the evangelical figures from whom Huckabee has drawn support. There was evangelical speaker Janet Folger; Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association and chancellor of Patrick Henry College; Don Wildmon of the American Family Association. Study that list. Recognize any names? Sure, GR readers might, but it's doubtful the typical reporter does. (I recognized only the names of Farris and Wildmon -- and I wrote for Christianity Today.)
My only quibble with Slater's story was a slight lack of context. The rise of little-known evangelical pastors is an old story, not a new one; he should have read or re-read Bowling Alone. For as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam pointed out, "Religious conservatives have created the largest, best-organized grassroots social movement of the past quarter century. It is, in short, among evangelical Christians, rather than the ideological heirs of the sixties, that we find the strongest evidence of an upswelling of civic engagement against [an] ebb tide ..."
That criticism aside, Slater's insight should have a major implication for the press. Stop obsessing about which candidates big-name Christian leaders endorse. Start learning about whether the candidates are tapping into church networks.
By way of counterexample, remember when Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani. The New York Times splashed a picture of the two men's smiling visages on its front page. With Giuliani's now campaign flagging, you can see how much Robertson's support helped him.