Greetings from East Tennessee.
If you know anything about the real East Tennessee, other than movie stereotypes about Hill people without shoes, then you probably know that this is a very distinct land that should have been its own state (as in the lost state of Franklin). This is also a region loaded with liberal arts colleges. Did you know that?
Now, at this moment in American politics, there are two other things you need to know about my part of the world.
First of all, this is one of the most intensely Republican regions that there is, anywhere. If you walk out your front door and throw a rock, you'll probably hit a Republican, a Republican's car or a Republican's house.
Second, religion is a very big deal in our neck of the woods and this fact shows up in research all of the time. This is the kind of place where, when your moving truck is still in the driveway of your new house, lots of people are going to show up and ask where you're planning on going to church.
This brings me, of course, to the battle for "evangelical" voters in the current race for the White House. The other day, The Knoxville News-Sentinel ran a piece on this issue with this headline: "Cruz and Rubio battle for evangelical vote in Tennessee."
Now, did you notice a word, a name actually, missing from that headline?
The first time that I glanced at this piece I thought that it was crazy that Citizen Donald Trump's name was not in that headline. Then I read the story and I thought that it was crazy that Trump doesn't show up until the very final paragraphs in this story.
I mean, after all, when you look at the state as a whole Trump's numbers are right where they have been so far -- if not a few ticks higher. And this just in from The Tennessean:
Donald Trump has built a dominating lead in Tennessee ... ahead of the Republican presidential primary on Super Tuesday, according to a new poll.
A poll released Sunday by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist found Trump the top choice of 40 percent of likely Tennessee Republican primary voters, followed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, with 22 percent; and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio with 19 percent. The trio is followed by Ben Carson with 9 percent and John Kasich with 6 percent.
So what is up with the News-Sentinel story? Is it really off-base or on target?
I think that, one, it's talking about active, church-going evangelical voters and, two, it's point of view is shaped by East Tennessee (even though the story is about the whole state). I have to admit that, driving around here in Oak Ridge, I'm not seeing any Trump signs. Maybe the Trump voters are scared of offending the normal Republicans? Anyway, here is the top of the News-Sentinel piece:
When Hope Foulds talks politics with other Christian conservatives, they tell her they want the next president to be a true man of God, one who lives his faith in his private life as well as on the public stage.
For her, that man is Ted Cruz.
“He is the one candidate who has stayed true to his word,” said Foulds, who can be found most every Sunday in the pews at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville. “It’s not just campaign rhetoric. It’s something you can see when you look back at his political past and even before his political life began.”
On the opposite end of the state, Hunter Baker is backing Marco Rubio, who he says is creating a lot of excitement among evangelical voters who are well educated, professional and looking for someone who can inspire Americans to reach for higher ideals.
“Many evangelicals worry about a candidate making them look bad,” said Baker, a political science professor at Union University, a Christian college in Jackson. “Rubio is so well spoken and articulate, they like that. They think he can represent their point of view without being craven and get their message across.”
Now, Baker is a nationally known voice among evangelical leaders and thinkers. So, once again, there is that potential bias between the active, church-going evangelicals and their leaders (who tend to oppose Trump) and the 30-40 percent of cultural "evangelicals" who keep pulling away to vote for Trump.
How big is this issue in this part of the Bible Belt? The story notes that, according to one researcher, evangelicals made of "70 percent of voters in Tennessee in 2012," the last time the White House was up for grabs. Can that be right? Surely that was GOP voters?
The story offers quite a bit of material on what Cruz and Rubio strategists are doing to reach people in pews and pulpits in this state. Finally, near the end, another national-level evangelical voice shows up:
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has made his faith a big part of his campaign, yet “I rarely hear Ben Carson’s name from evangelicals as a candidate they are considering,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville.
“Most evangelicals I know think highly of Ben Carson,” Moore said, but “he’s not really in the mix anymore. I think that is because he has done so poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. People of all stripes wonder why he’s still in the race.”
Polls show Donald Trump with a commanding lead among all Republicans in Tennessee, but Moore said he doesn’t see Trump with a large following among the state’s evangelical voters.
“It seems he is going for a much more secular or nominally Christian voting base,” Moore said.
Baker then notes that, once again, Trump may be the "winner" if Cruz and Rubio divide the majority of evangelical voters in this state. In other words, business as usual, with the mainstream press trumpeting that Citizen Trump is "capturing the 'evangelical' vote" with 35-40 percent.
So was the News-Sentinel "evangelical" voters story off base when it all but ignored Trump?
Probably not, at least not here in East Tennessee. Maybe there are Trump signs on street corners near evangelical churches and Trump bumper stickers in the parking lots at conservative churches in Nashville and in the giant Memphis suburbs. I don't know.
But I do know this: Journalists must find a way to research the views of people who culturally identify themselves as "evangelicals" or "born again," yet are not active in the Bible Belt's major evangelical churches and institutions. That divide is getting more and more important and its skewing the news coverage.
How do you find the "evangelicals" who aren't in pews very often? Is anyone sitting on exit-poll data on these Trump evangelicals?