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No, religious voters don’t hold total sway over GOP presidential primaries

With the chatter about the coming GOP presidential primary already heating up, Mike Huckabee yesterday gave the keynote address at a meeting of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, in which he offered an emphatic defense of his party’s position on same-sex marriage. He said:

“When people say, ‘Why don’t you just kind of get on the right side of history?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to understand, this for me is not about the right side or the wrong side of history, this is the right side of the Bible, and unless God rewrites it, edits it, sends it down with his signature on it, it’s not my book to change.’ Folks, that’s why I stand where I stand.”

As a Baptist minister, Huckabee spends more time explicitly talking about the Bible than other potential 2016 Republican candidates do. But all of them are going to be making these kinds of appearances, in Iowa and elsewhere. And when they do, reporters are going to write stories about the power Republican evangelical leaders and voters have over the nominating contest. When you encounter those stories, be warned: that power is vastly overrated.

That doesn’t mean the candidates won’t do plenty of pandering to conservative Christians, because they will. There will be speeches given to Christian groups, pilgrimages made to the homes of religious leaders and Christian colleges, and dozens of Sunday morning sermons in which candidates will testify that the spirit of God is coursing through their veins. But it would be a mistake to see all that activity as a contest in which one candidate will come out ahead of the others and reap a meaningful political benefit. Think of it less like an Olympic race and more like a kids’ soccer game: everybody gets a ribbon just for showing up.

As I’ve written before, primary voters in both parties are ideological satisficers: they don’t seek out the most ideological candidate, they seek out the candidate who is ideological enough. Christian conservatives are, to a degree, the same way; they aren’t necessarily looking for the most religious candidate, just one who can assure them he’s religious enough, or at least understands where they’re coming from on matters of faith.

And it almost doesn’t matter where you start from. Consider what happened in recent elections. In both the 2008 and 2012 primaries, there were a zillion articles written wondering whether Mitt Romney could win the votes of evangelicals, many of whom consider Mormonism not to be a Christian sect, or even to be a cult. He worked hard to win them over, and whether their opinions of Mormonism ever changed, they eventually decided he was good enough. Something similar happened with John McCain in 2008. No one had ever known him to be a particularly religious person, but he went to the events and met the leaders, and in the end Republican voters got on board.

It is true that in Iowa, there are a large number of evangelical Republicans. They helped Mike Huckabee win the 2008 caucuses, and did the same for Rick Santorum four years later. You might recall, however, that neither Huckabee nor Santorum actually became his party’s nominee. The nominee ended up being the establishment candidate everyone predicted at the outset would prevail, even if there were candidates whose faith was more at the center of their identity.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that evangelical Christians don’t still exercise a powerful pull on the party’s policy agenda, and no where is this more clear than on marriage equality. As Greg noted recently, though the country may be rapidly changing in its views toward marriage, the GOP can’t, because such a large part of its base is made up of evangelicals. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that while 59 percent of Americans supported allowing gay people to marry, only 28 percent of white evangelical Protestants did. None of the 2016 candidates is going to contradict them on that, and as such, they will hold the party to a position that’s unpopular nationally.

But as usual, the Republican field will feature some candidates whose Christian faith is their defining characteristic, like Huckabee and Santorum, and others for whom it had seldom been in evidence before the campaign began. In the end, that will have almost nothing to do with who becomes their nominee.