Who are evangelical voters supporting in the 2008 primary season? The facile assumption is to look for them in the Huckabee camp. No doubt many are to be found there. Consensus has it that conservative Protestants got Huckabee his win in the Iowa caucuses. And since then the choice between Huckabee and Romney sure went Huckabee’s way more often than not.
But the research on conservative Protestant politics makes me doubt that the story ends with Huckabee. A candidate who is an ordained Baptist clergyman and a southerner invites us to make a quick call and get on to the next subject. Remember how a sloppy question about values led to premature closure on the values voter on election night in 2004. I would hate to misjudge another one.
What are the alternative accounts? To start, members of the traditionally black churches have evangelical credentials that no one challenges. Very few of them voted for Bush in 2004, and I would be shocked if many of them are choosing Huckabee over Obama this time around.
Second, as books and articles about 2004 made clear, white evangelicals were more likely than other American voters to respond to pocketbook issues. Lower-income and working-class white evangelicals backed Bill Clinton by large margins in both 1992 and 1996, favored Al Gore in 2000, and split 50-50 between Bush and Kerry in 2004 (compared to an 85-15 split among affluent white evangelicals). Conservative Protestants unsettled by the talk of recession may be looking for an alternative to trickle-down economics. Third, many evangelicals share John Edwards’ commitment to ending poverty in this country and abroad. Edwards may have pulled them into the Democratic race; they may choose to stay for the Clinton vs. Obama decision instead of joining the McCain vs. Huckabee decision.
Finally, Huckabee’s appeal goes beyond religion. He is socially very conservative and bills himself that way. But he has the full range of positions you would expect from a nationwide candidate. And of course with every non-evangelical vote we ascribe to Huckabee, the deeper we get into the mystery of where the rest of the evangelicals are.
I had hoped to turn to the exit polls to find evidence on these conjectures. Yet the data are nearly silent. Exit polls in most states fail to ask Democrats if they are evangelical. Democrats get the questions about major religion and church attendance but, except in a few states, polls skip the evangelical question when interviewing Democrats. Somebody at polling HQ has decided either that Democratic evangelicals are not of interest or do not exist. We will see when the academic surveys become available in a year from now, but enough specimens of this exotic species were spotted in 2004 to make most of us think that the evangelical Democrat is far from extinct. Too bad no news organizations are identifying them or tracking their preferences.
One shard of evidence so far hints that some white evangelicals must be participating in the Democratic primaries. More people are voting in the Democratic race than in the Republican one. On Super Tuesday Clinton and Obama combined for 14.6 million votes to McCain-Romney-Huckabee’s 8.4 million (source). Not all of the primaries allowed voters to choose which ballot they wanted on election day, but the 1.75-to-one margin is a significant one. It might be that every constituency except conservative Protestants are disproportionately Democrat this year, but I think that alternative is a lot less plausible.
In short, we should not equate Huckabee’s totals with the evangelical vote in this election. The black churches, white pocketbook voters, and blind spots in the data all caution against drawing a conclusion yet.