With the presidential nomination campaigns unsettled, Super Tuesday looms large, with Virginia a battleground state.
The Republican race is especially puzzling with the incomprehensible rise of Donald Trump. Trying to make sense of the GOP electorate this year has proved beyond the predictive skills of leading political observers. One reason is the real estate developer’s appeal among religious conservative voters — a core constituency of the Republican electorate and a key to his possible nomination. There is little or nothing in Trump’s background to suggest he would appeal to those voters. But he is doing very well among white evangelical Christians.
Virginia has long been a bastion of politically active religious conservatives, commonly labeled the religious right. The large percentage of white evangelicals in the state has fueled numerous religious conservative candidates to GOP nominations and elections in local and statewide campaigns.
Virginia is the birthplace of the contemporary religious right. The state was home to the Moral Majority, the major religious right political organization of the 1980s, and the Christian Coalition of America, the leading such organization of the 1990s and 2000s. It is here that the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, founders of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, respectively, first made their political stands before becoming major national political figures. Robertson remains a powerful religious broadcaster; Jerry Falwell Jr. carries his late father’s legacy as president of Liberty University and an outspoken religious conservative leader.
The power of the religious right in the Virginia GOP primary contests was seen in recent presidential elections. In 2000, Virginia was the ultimate showdown in the close contest between George W. Bush and John McCain. Bush had been pulling about two-thirds of the white evangelical vote in prior races. McCain had to beat back Bush’s commanding advantage with those voters in Virginia. His tack was to try to generate a counter-mobilization among moderate Republicans, independents and Democratic-leaning voters (Virginia’s primary is open).
In a remarkable speech, McCain openly attacked Robertson and Falwell as “agents of intolerance.” The result was that white evangelicals turned out in large numbers for Bush — giving him nearly 80 percent of their support and a clear march to the nomination.
Leading up to the 2008 cycle, McCain reached out to Falwell, receiving an invitation to speak at Liberty University. The McCain turnaround stunned those close to him. He professed his Baptist faith, never before on public display, and his fidelity to the social issues important to the religious right. He won the primary and sealed the deal by picking then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president.
In 2012, the GOP nomination contest had largely been settled by the time of the Virginia primary, although libertarian-leaning former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.) remained in the hunt against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the clear favorite of religious conservatives. Although Paul had banked on the crossover votes of those opposed to the religious right agenda, they never materialized. Romney easily won Virginia and the nomination.
If recent presidential history is any guide, the white evangelical core of the religious right is the bulwark of the GOP primary-voting populace and the key to victory here in 2016. But unlike those previous contests, there is no clear favorite of the religious right or strong challenger positioned to generate large crossover voter turnout. It is a contest among several candidates with a credible claim to religious right support.
With no standard-bearer, the white evangelical vote is split among the Republican candidates: Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
With even a significant minority of the white evangelical vote, Trump probably will emerge with the advantage given that he has more crossover appeal.
Maybe this year it is not necessary to win the white evangelical vote in Virginia to win the GOP primary. It may be enough to have a respectable showing among those voters and support from other groups. The landscape here looks good for Trump.
The writer is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.