Social Conservatives Still Control the GOP

Despite worries that their focus on abortion and gay marriage is a liability for Republicans, they're as well-organized, vigilant, and powerful as ever.
Marco Rubio and Ralph Reed (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Ever since Republicans got clobbered in the last election, some have suggested they dial back some of their hard stances in the culture war. The College Republicans, for example, commissioned a study that concluded that young voters see the party as fusty and old-fashioned, and urged it to get with the times on issues such as gay marriage. America may not be keen on free love and abortion on demand, but neither are voters clamoring for a party that wants to restrict access to contraception and keep women out of the work force.

And yet Republican politicians do not seem to have gotten the message. On Wednesday, for example, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill out of committee to ban almost all abortions after 20 weeks.* The religious conservative faction, with its agenda of stopping gay marriage and banning abortion under all circumstances, appears as strong as ever.

For proof, you needed only pay a visit this week to a conference put on by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Ironically, or defiantly, titled the "Road to Majority Conference," it attracted a star-studded line-up of GOP pols, from potential presidential candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio to rabble-rousers like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. The Faith and Freedom Coalition is headed by Ralph Reed, who you may remember from his glory days with the Christian Coalition in the 1990s or the Abramoff scandal of the last decade; he was last seen, in 2012, assuring the evangelicals that their hard work was going to win the election for Mitt Romney. The group claims to have sent 23 million pieces of campaign mail last year.

Nonetheless, there was little anguish or self-doubt at this week's gathering. "Despite the disappointment of 2012, we're very optimistic about the future," FFC's executive director, Gary Marx, told the catered luncheon that opened the three-day conference. "We win elections when we emphasize pro-freedom, pro-family messages based on our founding principles. We lose when candidates fail to articulate that message."

If this was meant to imply that Romney lost because social conservatives weren't enthusiastic enough about him, there's little evidence that's the case. According to exit polls, white born-again Christians were 26 percent of the electorate in 2012 and 78 percent of them voted for Romney; in 2008, they were also 26 percent of the electorate, and 74 percent of them voted for John McCain. In 2004, George W. Bush won reelection with 78 percent of their vote, when they made up a slightly smaller portion of the electorate. The problem is not that evangelicals' political participation or devotion to the GOP is declining. It's that the gap between what they believe and what everyone else does is growing wider.

How the party moves forward will depend above all on whom it nominates in the next presidential election, so the speeches by Paul and Rubio were especially consequential. That both felt compelled to address the group and pander to its narrow interests was evidence of social conservatives' continuing intraparty clout: The Christian right has been so well organized for so long that other conservative factions, such as libertarians or the Tea Party, pose little threat to its dominance.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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