Gingrich and the evangelical vote

I’m usually not very good at political prognostication but last week I told my husband that I thought Newt Gingrich would win in South Carolina. He laughed at me. Well look who’s laughing now! Actually, I have no idea who is laughing, but I do know that the entire DC political class of media and pundit types are freaking out about what happened. It was pretty interesting to watch Twitter reactions from all types as they process that Republican voters might not be ready to settle on Mitt Romney.

So, are there any religion angles? Heck yeah there are religion angles! There’s the fact that a bunch of evangelical leaders pushed their support of Santorum. Santorum overperformed on Saturday. Was that because of his support from some evangelical leaders? Or was it because of his debate performances? His general advocacy of issues that social conservatives care about? Do reporters even care?

Mitt Romney’s widely regarded as failing to connect with voters. Is that because of his wealth? His somewhat recent conversion to conservatism? His style of speaking? His religion? Speaking of his religion, I stole this picture here from Daily Mail political reporter Toby Harnden who writes:

Not headlines Romney wanted as he arrives in Tampa – incl 1 about Mormons w word “cult” in it

Here’s a link to the story. And Gingrich. He didn’t just win evangelical support, he won everybody’s support. He even did well among the group everyone said he’d perform poorly with: married women. (Here’s a bit from the Wall Street Journal about how he performed well across all voting sectors.) How is it possible, some religion reporters asked, that evangelicals could support such a vile human being? Or as one New York Times religion writer tweeted:

For MANY, evangelicalism=cultural attitude, not actual conviction on how to behave: how else adulterous Gingrich win Xian-heavy S. Carolina?

I responded by suggesting the Christian teaching of forgiveness might play a role! But actually, I think there’s another larger religion issue that is in play. This Reuters article from a week ago does the best job of explaining how conservative evangelical Christians were working through who to vote for. Here’s how it begins:

These are desperate times for Newt Gingrich.

But this is the audience he’s been waiting for: South Carolina’s evangelical Christians, who he hopes will rescue his flagging bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

His message to them is direct and urgent: Christians are under attack, and Republicans shouldn’t trust Mitt Romney to always oppose abortion.

“We will not tolerate a speech dictatorship in this country against Christianity,” the former House speaker told a crowd of 300 in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Wednesday, railing against what he has called government intrusions on Catholic charities and other religious organizations.

The article gets better from there, asking specific questions about how Gingrich’s past weighs on voters’ minds as well as what they think of everyone else’s negatives. It’s well-rounded and simply reports what voters are thinking. And it sounds like they were thinking that Gingrich might do a better job advocating for them.

Back when Romney was leading in the state, the New York Times ran a story about how his religious views were significantly less of a problem there this time around. But even in that article it says that the issue that dominated voter thinking was ability to defeat President Barack Obama. Now all the pundits and the reporters are mocking South Carolinian voters about this, but exit polls showed that voters believed that Gingrich had a much better chance of beating President Obama than Romney did. So did Romney’s religion come into play? Even the exit poll question designed to answer that might have some ambiguity.

Over in a nice round-up at Christianity Today, there’s a good graph showing how people answered the question of how much a candidate’s religious beliefs matter. Among those who answered that it mattered a great deal, Gingrich and Santorum dominated. Among those who said it only mattered somewhat, Gingrich and Romney fared best. Among those who said it didn’t matter, Romney and Gingrich did the best. But what do we mean by “religious beliefs”? It may seem a silly question, but when a pollster asks that question, does the voter think “I want a Catholic?” or something like that? Or does it mean “I want someone who will fight bigotry against religious institutions?” Again, that Reuters story quoted evangelicals saying they don’t think too favorably of Gingrich’s marital failures but they do think highly of how he’ll advocate for religious concerns.

The fact is that relatively few people make a decision to vote for anyone based on any one trait or position that the candidate has. It can be tricky to understand the complex decision-making that goes into a vote. Also, the temptation among reporters is high to come up with catchy narratives to explain the vote. (We all do it…)

I have to highlight an article that I thought did a good job of reporting the facts with the right dose of analysis — coming from experts as opposed to cooked into the story. Here’s the top of Dan Gilgoff’s piece for CNN all about how Gingrich managed to win more evangelicals than his rivals:

If there were any doubts that Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married convert to Catholicism, could connect with the evangelical voters who make up the Republican Party base, Saturday’s South Carolina primary put them to rest, with the former House Speaker winning twice as many evangelical votes as anyone else in the race.

Evangelical Christians made up two-thirds of the South Carolina electorate on Saturday, and Gingrich took 44% of their votes, according to CNN’s exit poll.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who rode evangelical support to victory in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses earlier this month, each got 21% of the evangelical vote in South Carolina.

Gingrich got roughly the same share of the South Carolina evangelical vote as Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, did four years ago.

The former House speaker campaigned vigorously among evangelicals in the Palmetto State, talking about “values” issues and speaking to and holding conference calls with hundreds of evangelical pastors.

“Whatever his personal values may be, he certainly talked effectively and cogently to the kinds of issues that evangelicals care about,” said John Green, an expert in religion and politics at the University of Akron.

It packs a lot of different things in there without attempting to do too much. CNN also had this article which is the opposite of the ‘Evangelicals in the Mist’ stories we see so much of. It’s headlined “Evangelicals in SC: Not What You Think” and basically says that evangelicals are not a monolothic voting bloc. Who knew?

And for a brief discussion of Catholicism here, I have to echo what one reader asked when submitting this story about “more than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians” who wrote an open letter to Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum “warning them ‘to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.‘” The reader asked us:

What’s missing from this story? Oh, not much. Just minor details like the names and affiliations of the 40 people who are doing the warning.

What’s the journalistic argument for leaving that out?

(second photo via shortformblog)

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  • Stan

    I find it difficult to understand your statement that Santorum “overperformed” as a result of the endorsement of the Evangelical leaders. He received 17% of the vote, which is a smaller percentage than he received in Iowa. He received about as much of the Evangelical vote as Romney did (20% of those who described themselves as Evangelical), but much less than Gingrich did. It seems to me he seriously underperformed and that the endorsement from the Evangelical leaders had little effect.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stan,
    He was predicted to end up in last place in South Carolina. He did not, beating Paul and receiving a higher percentage of the vote than polls indicated he would. (both he and Romney received 21% of the evangelical vote)

    It’s probably why Santorum’s able to justify staying in the race.

    Now as for the effect of the evangelical leaders? I suspect that they had very little effect and some reporters have already written stories about that or will be writing stories about their declining effect. That is a fascinating story about the generational divide among conservative evangelicals and deserves a fuller treatment.

  • http://costlygrace.blogspot.com The_Archer_of_the_Forest

    I think this boils down to Southerners not going to vote for a Yankee Wall Street Mormon from New England. I don’t think it has much to do with religion at all. When given the choice, Southerners will vote for another Southerner almost all the time.

  • Jeff

    Except Newt Gingrich is not a Southerner. He’s from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and his congressional district in suburban Atlanta is made up largely of Northern transplants like himself. Gingrich may or may not do well in Southern states, but, if so, being a Southerner himself is not the reason why.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Either way, keep comments focused on journalism as opposed to politics.

  • carl jacobs

    The thing that strikes me – over and over and over again – in these stories is how non-controversial Gingrich’s marital record would be if he were a Democratic candidate. Remember Clinton? Remember the perjury that didn’t really count because it was “just about sex?” I can’t help but think the press is being cynical in this matter – that it is encouraging a fight among its ideological enemies both for good copy and for political advantage. It is after all a certain fact that your average journalist doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about Gingrich’s marriages. But they sure want me to care. I wonder why that is?

    Now let me undermine my whole argument by stating that I do care. It goes to character, and character is important. Journalists don’t agree, however. Clinton proved it. If the media was consistent on the matter (Heh. ‘consistent journalism.’ You’ll find it cross-indexed with El Dorado) there would be a whole lot more journalistic bellowing about ‘focusing on the issues.’ I suspect that if Gingrich was a Democrat, there would be. “Let’s You and Him Fight” is a wonderful game that journalists love to play. But only when they don’t like either the ‘you’ or the ‘him.’

    carl
    who didn’t vote for Gingrich.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Here’s the text of that letter from “forty Catholic leaders”, and includes their names. HINT: Fr. Thomas Resse is among them.

    I’m curious about that headline: “Evangelicals in SC: Not What You Think”. I thought the article was pretty good, but who is the “You” to whom it’s addressed. Is this another example of hunting the wily evangelical, searching him out in his native habitat?

    The article, not so much… the headline… yeah.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    That would be “Reese” not “Resse”.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    On that last story you mentioned, Mollie, there’s another basic journalistic aspect that’s missing from the story — any sort of response from the candidates. But hey, not having the protagonists’ names and rebuttals from the candidates — those are minor details, so they’re easy to overlook. All that matters is that some nameless group of people who say they’re Catholic have spoken out against the two Catholic candidates denouncing them for racism. So let’s not get lost in trivial matters like the names and affiliations of the accusers and the responses of the accused. Heck, if the editors paid any attention to that, you might have some controversy and discussion about a substantial matter and, heaven forbid, we can’t have that in an election year, can we?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Passing By, excellent point on the headline.
    Thomas, you clearly do not have what it takes to make it in journalism!

  • BOB

    “It is after all a certain fact that your average journalist doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about Gingrich’s marriages.”

    It certainly is not. Just because a person doesn’t support rigid sexual rules doesn’t mean one is in favor of ditching two sick wives and taking up with mistresses. Even Dan Savage disapproves of massive hypocrisy and cruelty.

  • Stan

    The thing that strikes me – over and over and over again – in these stories is how non-controversial Gingrich’s marital record would be if he were a Democratic candidate. Remember Clinton? Remember the perjury that didn’t really count because it was “just about sex?” I can’t help but think the press is being cynical in this matter – that it is encouraging a fight among its ideological enemies both for good copy and for political advantage. It is after all a certain fact that your average journalist doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about Gingrich’s marriages. But they sure want me to care. I wonder why that is?

    Uh, is there problem with your memory? As I recall, Gingrich led the impeachment of Clinton (while he himself was engaged in an affair), and the journalists duly reported the impeachment and Gingrich’s many comments about the sanctity of marriage.

    The things that strikes me is how few journalists raise the issue of the hypocrisy of Gingrich. This allows him to spin the questions as though the journalists really were concerned about his marital infidelities instead of the disconnect between his pontifications about marriage and his actual conduct.

  • carl jacobs

    11. BOB

    Yeh. The media really beat up John McCain about that exact issue, didn’t they?

    Just because a person doesn’t support rigid sexual rules doesn’t mean one is in favor of ditching two sick wives and taking up with mistresses.

    Oh? Why? Marriages have become ‘at will’ relationships. By modern convention, nothing requires person A to stay with person B simply because person B is sick. Isn’t person A’s happiness now the overriding factor? That ‘sickness and health’ clause got kicked to the curb a long time ago. In the Democratic Party of Thoroughly Modern Morals, this should be as uncontroversial as shacking up before marriage. So why is Newt getting beaten up about it? Because the media is shocked, SHOCKED that Newt acted according to the moral conventions of modern society? Conventions the media generally support and defend without hesitation, reservation, or purpose of evasion? (*Cough* Ben Bradlee *Cough*) No, they care about it only because I care about it, and the media wants to create division in the ranks of the enemy. I really can’t take seriously this idea of journalists getting all worked up over someone else’s sexual sin. They are all so jaded. I just assume it’s politics anymore.

    carl

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I find it fascinating how many people, like Stan and the NY Times, are slamming Gingrich for being a hypocrite. For some reason it never seems to occur to them that Gingrich has had a change of heart. That maybe that’s why he became a Catholic. That maybe that’s why he sought declarations of nullity (annulments) on his previous two marriages. That maybe that’s why he’s regularly going to Mass at the National Shrine.

    Does that mean he has no issue with the character flaws that led to the actions of marrying and divorcing and having affairs? No. But it could very well mean that he has learned from his mistakes, only I don’t think any journalist has thought to ask him that question because all too many of them are stuck on thinking of him only as a politician and hypocrite. (Was that redundant?)

  • carl jacobs

    12. Stan

    No, there is nothing wrong with my memory. What I remember is the Media acting as a veritable Greek Chorus for the Clinton spin that “This was all political. It was all unimportant to the business of the country because it was just about sex.”

    carl

  • Stan

    I find it fascinating how many people, like Stan and the NY Times, are slamming Gingrich for being a hypocrite. For some reason it never seems to occur to them that Gingrich has had a change of heart.

    Exactly when did he have a change of heart? When he was conducting his own extra-marital affair while loudly condemning Clinton? Or when he left his second wife to marry his third?

    As far as I know, Gingrich has been consistent in his view of the sanctity of marriage. And in his paying no attention to the vows he has made.

    So are you saying that he was a hypocrite in the past but is sincere now?

    A journalist would have to be a mind-reader to be able to discern when Gingrich is a hypocrite and when he is not.

  • carl jacobs

    19. Stan

    I don’t think the issue is Gingrich’s hypocrisy. Personally, I find your criticisms well founded. Mr Gingrich has not assuaged my concerns on the matter, and that is why I didn’t support him. The concern is rather journalism’s (shall we say) selective concern regarding hypocrisy. It seems that some hypocrites are more worthy of public light than others.

    carl

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I have just spiked a bunch of non-journalistic comments, but it’s too late to get this thread under control.

    Come on people, go elsewhere for your political broadsides.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    So something is wrong with my email and I just got notified about all of these comments. And a few hours ago, I might have said “work harder to keep things focused on journalism” or deleted some of these. I guess I’ll just say that now: work to keep comments focused on journalism!

  • teahouse

    And for a brief discussion of Catholicism here, I have to echo what one reader asked when submitting this story about “more than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians” who wrote an open letter to Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum “warning them ‘to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.’”

    Not just names are missing. If one actually reads the letter, it turns out that the criticism of the 40 is related more to welfare policy, with the “race card” stuck on top of it for better effect. Which IMHO tells us more about the 40 than it does about the “two Catholic candidates”.

    Speaking of them, I think it a bit strange to treat Santorum and Gingrich equally about their religious affiliation (and not because Santorum is actually an “evangelicalist”).

  • Bain Wellington

    How’s this for inflation . . .

    David Gibson’s WaPo piece on the open letter of the “40″ tells us that the subscribers are “Catholic leaders and theologians”.

    The link courtesy of Passing By @7 (Kristin Ford at Faith in Public Life) pumped that up to “national Catholic leaders and prominent theologians at universities across the country”

    Shaking out the 14 who have no obvious claim to be Catholic leaders or theologians of any stripe, on my reckoning the list comprises faculty members from 16 universities – 11 of which are Jesuit institutions – and only one of the universities (Santa Clara) is west of the Mississippi.


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