Post-election recriminations for the Republican shellacking have focused on various suspects: conservative talk radio, Karl Rove and Crossroads PAC, bad polling, bad candidates and campaigns, and, the perennial favorite target when elections go bad for the party - the Christian Right.
Indeed, the 2012 elections constituted a serious setback for the Christian Right. President Obama won a convincing electoral-college victory, and Democrats gained seats in the Senate and House. Voters in three states approved same-sex marriage, and in a fourth state rejected a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Two states passed referenda legalizing marijuana, and two of the strongest pro-life Republican Senate candidates lost in states where the Republicans should have coasted to victory.
Some pundits have declared the death of the Christian Right, and there is evidence to back up their analyses. The once-dominant Christian Coalition is essentially bankrupt, Focus on the Family is now focusing on the family ministry, not politics, and the Rev. Pat Robertson, once the biggest voice of the movement, has recently called for legalization of marijuana and excused Gen. David Petraeus’s affair. Once leading figures as the former Rev. Jerry Falwell have passed away, and James Dobson is off the air. The movement lacks a powerful organizational structure and it has no leading spokesperson.
We have heard many past declarations of the demise of the Christian Right, usually after elections that favored the Democrats. Yet the movement has persistently reorganized and risen from the dead to contest policy and politics. The core of the Christian Right is white evangelicals, and they remain a sizable voting bloc – about one-fourth of the electorate. In 2012 the exit polls report that they voted about 78 percent for Mitt Romney, or roughly the same rate as Mormons. White Catholics also voted strongly Republican this year. These core groups of the Christian Right comprise perhaps more than 40 percent of the electorate and right now are solid Republicans.
Despite predictions that Catholics would join evangelicals because of anger at the HHS contraception mandate and the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, Catholics overall supported Obama 50-48. The president’s better showing among Catholics though is attributable to the huge majorities he commanded among Latinos, who likely were voting on economic and immigration issues, not faith-based ones.
Given the electoral landscape of 2012, how might the Christian Right reconstitute itself for the future? Younger evangelicals are strongly pro-life, but, compared to their parents’ generation, they are more tolerant of gays and lesbians, more concerned for the environment and world poverty. So the next incarnation of the Christian Right may need to moderate on some issues to attract young evangelicals, but this may make building larger religious coalitions easier. It may also look to ways to attract minority voters, especially Latinos, by following the lead of the young evangelicals who also are more likely than the older generation evangelicals to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and compassionate policies that help the neediest.
In the short term, the election offers different implications for the two core issues of the culture wars. Public support for same-sex marriage has increased dramatically over the past decade, and this trend is likely to continue. There will be additional victories for LGBT activists through legislation and referenda. By 2016, we expect to see states begin to repeal their constitutional amendments that ban same-sex unions.
But polls show the public is actually less supportive of abortion than it was a decade ago, and that younger voters and especially young evangelicals are even less pro-choice than their parents. This year, certain GOP candidates seemed to go out of their way to offend, and the most outrageous statements became for many voters the image of the GOP’s pro-life agenda. Moreover, there was political fallout from the efforts of some in the GOP to further their agenda through legislative measures that angered many citizens. Personhood proposals, bills mandating intrusive ultrasound procedures turned swing voters away from the GOP and contributed to the success of the Democratic mobilization campaign.
In the past, the Christian Right has had substantial successes when it has promoted positions that dovetailed with the views of many voters outside the movement. Restrictions on late-term abortions and on taxpayer funded abortion services, and measures on parental notification and parental consent have passed state legislatures, including in some states that voted Blue this year, because the Christian Right was able to form coalitions with other groups and build majoritarian support for its positions.
The 2012 elections results do not evidence a fundamental realignment of the electorate – no more than did the big GOP triumphs in 2010 and even 2004, the so-called values voters election. If we have learned anything from electoral politics since 2000, it is that the nation is deeply divided and that the fortunes of the parties can change significantly from one election cycle to the next, even with just a marginal shift in voting preferences or turnout rates among certain constituencies.
The Democratic triumph of this year could certainly be followed by disaster for the party in 2014 or 2016. What the Christian Right learns from this election and how it reconstitutes itself going forward will have a big impact on its future and those of the major political parties. Indeed, it will not surprise us if observers declaring the death of the Christian Right today are marveling at its big comeback in two or four years.
Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University. Clyde Wilcox is professor of government at Georgetown University. They have collaborated on numerous books on the politics of the Christian Right.