Evolution, Climate Change Could Divide the Republican Party

Huntsman Perry - Adam Hunger Reuters Jim Cole AP - banner.jpg

On evolution, just 23 percent of Republicans said in a 2009 Pew poll that human life had evolved solely through a natural process, while another 26 percent said evolution had occurred under divine guidance and 39 percent said life has always existed in its present form. When Gallup phrased the choices slightly differently last December, just 8 percent of Republicans said they believed human life had evolved without assistance from God, 36 percent said evolution had proceeded under divine guidance, and a 52 percent majority said God had created "human beings pretty much in their present form." (In contrast to climate change, the most recent Gallup surveys show that non-college Republicans are more likely than their college-educated counterparts to believe that God created man in his present form, though nearly half of the latter group shares that belief.)

Each survey found greater support for evolution without divine involvement among Democrats and independents; but in each case most Americans in those categories also rejected that explanation for the development of human life.

Considering all these results, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said that Huntsman was raising arguments against Perry that would have been more effective in the GOP a generation ago. "Thirty years ago, that approach would have made more sense in that there was a larger proportion of the Republican base that that would have appealed to," Abramowitz said. "But those sort of moderate Republicans--the people who were economic conservatives but social moderates--that's a very small segment of the Republican base these days, especially among Republican primary voters."

For Huntsman, the question is whether his case against Perry is larger than the sum of these parts. The tone of Huntsman's comments was as notable as the substance: Romney, currently the strongest candidate for the party's managerial wing, has expressed similar views to Huntsman on both evolution and climate change, but never so confrontationally. Huntsman's sharp words for the Texas governor also came as part of a broader attempt to define himself as a centrist counterpoint to all of his rivals, most pointedly by portraying the rest of the GOP field as irresponsible for opposing the legislation that raised the debt ceiling and allowed the federal government to avoid defaulting on its debts.

"He really believes that it is a losing proposition, particularly in any kind of national election, to be viewed as anti-science and challenging the fundamental findings of the scientific community on major questions of the day," said Whit Ayres, Huntsman's pollster. "And I think he was appalled at the fact that every other candidate in the race said we should oppose the only option on the table to avoid default. He sees himself as a serious candidate addressing serious issues and a lot of his opponents as frankly pandering." Aides to Huntsman and Perry each reject the idea that they are narrowing their potential appeal in the GOP field by taking such diametrical positions. Ayres says Huntsman isn't writing off the GOP's large block of religiously devout voters, noting that he has long opposed abortion and that his comments on evolution do not preclude divine involvement in the process. Conversely, Ray Sullivan, Perry's former gubernatorial chief of staff and incoming campaign communications director, says the governor does not view his positions on evolution and climate change as "mutually exclusive" with support for science. "It is possible to be pro-research and development and pro-science and be skeptical about man-made global warming or Darwinism," Sullivan said.

Yet many analysts agree, the practical effect of the positions Huntsman and Perry have taken on these issues is to more deeply entrench them along opposite shores of the GOP's divide between managers and populists.

Lundry says the effect may be even greater for Huntsman than for Perry. "There is not a lot of turning back from that [for him]," he said. "From Huntsman, this is not a change in tone and volume. If we're using a radio analogy this is a change of the station." After Huntsman's barrage of criticism against his rivals, Lundry said, the remaining question is whether he goes "all Bulworth on the Republican primary"--a reference to Warren Beatty's 1998 movie in which a disillusioned Senator begins rapping inconvenient truths about the political system.

Ayres acknowledges that Huntsman's support "is more firmly ensconced ... in the managerial wing of the party than the populist wing." And though Perry's camp insists he intends to emphasize his economic record, his unequivocal embrace of hard-right social positions could complicate his outreach in coastal states with more moderate Republicans, and other contests that allow independents to participate. "I think he will narrow his audience not so much by his position but the intensity with which he takes on these issues," predicts Kohut. "Electability will be an issue for Perry."

However these arguments affect the GOP primary race, they highlight one of the core Democratic hopes for 2012: that Republican positions on social and environmental issues will repel some white-collar suburban voters otherwise economically disenchanted with President Obama. With his high-profile criticism of the dominant GOP positions on evolution and climate change, Huntsman may be simultaneously warning his party about that possibility and increasing the odds that it occurs.

Image credit: Adam Hunger/Reuters, Jim Cole/AP

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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