Newt Gingrich and religious conservatives: A marriage of convenience

December 13, 2011

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Newt Gingrich’s leadership style.

The latest polls show a surging Newt Gingrich winning substantial support among white evangelical voters, the key voting bloc in the upcoming Iowa Caucuses. Those same voters, who comprise the core of the religious right movement, powered former minister Mike Huckabee to a Corn State upset in 2008. Huckabee’s decision to not run this election cycle created an opening for the rest of the GOP field to now court their support.

Yet Gingrich may seem unlikely as their choice for leader.

The thrice-married Gingrich has acknowledged infidelities and other personal failings, and a recent Public Religion Research poll finds religious conservatives in overwhelming agreement that marital infidelity is a disqualifier for public office. Some pro-family groups and ministers in Iowa are advocating opposition to Gingrich due to his personal life. And his lagging rivals are beginning to attack him, though it’s still unclear how and whether they will use Gingrich’s personal history in their appeals to religious conservatives.

The collapse of ordained minister and strong social conservative Herman Cain's presidential hopes demonstrates the sensitivity these voters have to even unproven allegations.

And yet Gingrich's vote total grows. What’s happening?

First, what seems like hypocrisy to some is pragmatic politics to others. Religious conservatives consider the defeat of President Barack Obama job No. 1. True, the more reliable social conservatives running for president clearly lack what political consultants call Gingrich’s "baggage." But what these other Republicans also lack is the gravitas seen as necessary for a conservative candidate to beat President Obama.

Even his rivals admit Gingrich is presidential. His campaign stumbled badly at the start due to several damaging missteps, turning many likely Iowa voters cold to the Old Newt. But the New Newt's shining performance as a knowledgeable, skilled debater has melted this opposition.

Second, to religious conservative voters, Gingrich is usually “right” on their policy issues. Historically, this has at times been enough to sway their vote. In 1980, the divorced and non-religious Ronald Reagan heavily won the votes of religious conservatives over the pious incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Reagan was anti-abortion and pro school prayer. Carter was not.

And four years ago at about this time, Rev. Pat Robertson endorsed thrice-divorced GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, despite the former New York City mayor being pro-choice and pro-gay rights. The 9/11 hero ran strongly in the early polls and for a time looked like a sure winner. Robertson knew that if social conservatives abandon a GOP presidential candidate, they essentially concede the election to a more liberal Democrat.

Third, Gingrich has converted to Catholicism, confessed his sins and thus been forgiven. The notion of such redemption plays heavily in evangelical discourse. Past moral failings figured prominently in the 2000 cycle as well. Liberal and secular Americans ridiculed evangelical conservative support for George W. Bush, who had battled alcoholism and other personal demons into middle age. Yet the Texan was open about this history, and he credited his faith for a chance to be reborn. That story resonated with many evangelicals, who also believed that he was the best conservative hope to win back the White House.

The drive to defeat President Obama has been motivating religious conservatives since the 2012 presidential cycle started. They gave little encouragement to Sarah Palin, despite her being one of their favorites, because she was seen as a sure loser. As a result, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, even Ron Paul were given a chance to shine. But all have been found lacking, even Santorum, who has toured Iowa's 99 counties to rally the most ardent social conservatives.

Moreover, Gingrich's main rival is Mitt Romney, of the Mormon faith. In 2008, Huckabee successfully played on the negative feelings held by many evangelicals toward the Church of Latter Day Saints. And resistance to Romney's faith is still greater than anyone admits.

Romney tried to morph into a social conservative in 2008, but the effort failed miserably. Now the successful businessman is running as an economic and fiscal conservative. While polls show the economy as the top issue even among religious conservatives, the former Massachusetts governor is again at risk of being rejected because of their perception that he is too moderate on the social agenda.

Gingrich's checkered past, along with his failure to build a grassroots organization, defies the conventional wisdom about how to win Iowa. But this year, religious conservatives everywhere appear to be looking for a different kind of faith: They want a conservative GOP leader whose message makes them believe that he can make Obama a one-term president. Gingrich just may be their unlikely messenger.

Paul Goldman is former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of numerous studies on religious conservatives in U.S. politics.

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Read more:

Gingrich: A leader more like Woodrow Wilson than Teddy Roosevelt

A leadership case for Newt Gingrich

How the Gingrich stole Christmas

With Newt, forgive and forget?

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