Romney Doesn't Need to Sweat the Evangelical Vote

Rick Santorum may have been the first choice of the religious right, but there's little danger they'll desert the Republican Party in November.

Associated Press

As Mitt Romney takes on the GOP nominee's mantle, free advice on how he should conduct his campaign abounds. He should keep tough talk on the economy; he should talk less about his health-care history. He should attack President Obama's "cool factor;" he should delicately elevate his own. He should remain loyal to his religious beliefs; he should keep Rick Santorum's evangelical supporters.

The latter issue has come to fore, most recently with Obama's announcement that he supports gay marriage but also with regards to Romney's vice presidential pick. Whatever Romney does over the next few months, he shouldn't worry about the evangelical voting bloc. In fact, he shouldn't spend a dime on them. His commencement speech at Liberty University this weekend notwithstanding, his money, time, and ultimately his message will be better focused elsewhere.

Romney -- and the rest of us -- can thank George W. Bush for the intense discussion of evangelicals. In 2000, so-called "values voters" flocked to caucuses, flooded the campaign trail, and filled churches to support a man who found Jesus after drinking too much and too often in college. He spoke endearingly about saving the lives of the unborn and preserving traditional marriage. (Oh, and cutting taxes!) For all his scars, even the self- and party-inflicted ones, Bush successfully courted the nearly 25 percent of the electorate that considers itself evangelical, and he knew how to drive them to the polls and get them to bring along their friends.

In April, The New York Times quoted longtime evangelical leader Tony Perkins saying that if Romney is going to generate excitement among Christian conservatives, he must "demonstrate a genuine and solid commitment to the core values issues" while comparing an obligatory vote for Romney over Obama to "eating your vegetables." Even if it's not cast with enthusiasm, an "obligatory vote" for Romney is still a vote. Plus, the numbers are in his favor: White evangelical voters favor Romney by a 50 point margin, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute released Thursday found. Obama's reversal on gay marriage will likely only increase that gap.

Still, naysayers contend Romney must pander to evangelicals because he performed poorly among them in the primaries. But GOP primaries are a choice among conservatives of varying degrees, and evangelicals on the whole preferred Santorum. To extend Perkins' metaphor, conservative Christians who voted in the primaries had a choice between Romney's broccoli and Santorum's sweet potatoes, and they chose the sweet potatoes. When they vote in November, and the ballot offers two choices with two vastly different ideologies they will choose the candidate whose opinions most closely match theirs -- Romney's broccoli is still preferable to Obama's Brussels sprouts. And the PRRI poll shows that Romney's favorability among evangelicals has risen even as knowledge of his Mormon faith has increased.

Not every cycle presents a stark choice between two strong very different candidates. Sometimes it's a race between two more similar, moderate politicians -- think Carter vs. Ford. History shows that hasn't caused conservative evangelicals to stray from the GOP fold. Case in point: In 2008, Obama failed to win the majority of evangelicals in any state; he only took one in four of the evangelical vote nationwide. By contrast, even Clinton took one in three in 1992. Although McCain was not especially popular with evangelicals, he won 74 percent of their votes -- even as evangelical turnout increased over 2004 and 2000 levels.

This is not to say Romney can take them for granted and change his position on the issues most important to evangelical voters. Evangelicals can still flex their muscle and help build the Republican platform. Romney must elicit their enthusiasm and encourage them to head to the polls while on the campaign trail.

Like most elections in modern history, this one will come down to the 10 to 15 percent of voters who are truly undecided. Romney would be better off focusing on this group. If he wins, it may not be as bad as evangelicals fear; they will certainly prefer it to the alternative. Sometimes you have to eat your vegetables before you can get a taste of dessert.