Have you wondered lately about this question: If John McCain is so bad for the Republican Party, then who are all these Republicans around the country who keep voting for him?
Not surprisingly, our senior senator picked up three more primary election victories this week, sweeping the so-called Potomac Primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. In Maryland and D.C., McCain won handily. And while not doing as well in Virginia, McCain nonetheless won that state. And that has some people a bit puzzled.
At this point in his race for the White House, John McCain’s greatest struggles are with socially conservative voters. Sure, he has problems with other Republican voters on issues of tax cuts (he voted in the Senate against President Bush’s tax cut legislation earlier this decade). And he, along with most of the rest of the Congress, alienated just about every American with his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform legislation of last year.
But social conservatives make up the largest sub-category in the Republican Party, and McCain’s greatest vulnerabilities would seem to be with these voters.
On a nationwide basis, social conservatives are primarily (although not entirely or exclusively) evangelical protestant Christians. And along with his perceived inadequacies on the issues among many evangelicals, McCain also has a competing candidate — Mike Huckabee.
If former Arkansas governor Huckabee stands for anything in the realm of modern politics, its social conservatism. He is staunchly pro-life, and passionately defends the historic definition of marriage. He also has a rather unique appeal to some evangelical Christian voters, an appeal that reaches outside the realm of political philosophy and his track record of governmental service. Huckabee is an ordained Baptist pastor, and for some voters, that’s reason enough to elect him president.
Huckabee doesn’t shrink from his background as a clergyman. In fact, he seemingly reminds people of his education in a Bible college, and his background as a pastor, more than he talks about having been the governor of a state. This makes for some interesting competition for McCain, who is already perceived as being weak on the issues that evangelicals are supposed to care about the most.
At this point in the election process, Huckabee seems to have very little appeal to anybody who isn’t an evangelical Christian. A former governor who spends weekends making cameo appearances at evangelical churches, and playing bass guitar in the worship band, doesn’t necessarily look “presidential” in the eyes of some. And for those who don’t attend a house of worship regularly, or who don’t worship in a place that has a band, well, Huckabee might just appear a little weird.
But if you know anything about the cultural terrain of Virginia, you know that evangelical Christianity is alive and well in the commonwealth. Sure, northern Virginia — Alexandria, Arlington, and so forth — is very much “the Beltway.” But D.C. is diverse enough that it embodies a wide array of religious groups, and evangelicalism has a solid presence there.
And you don’t have to travel too far south from the beltway to be in southern Virginia, which is most certainly the southern U.S. You’d think that a guy like Huckabee, the candidate who speaks from the campaign stump in biblical metaphors and likes to remind you that he’s the “real” Christian in this race, would do well in Virginia.
Well, McCain still won. In a state with a solid evangelical voter base, the guy who has been rejected by some of the most outspoken religious conservative advocates in America still got the most votes. This raises some interesting questions about both McCain and the leadership of the social conservative movement.
Could it be that McCain has far more appeal with conservative evangelical Christians than pundits give him credit for? He is, after all, very “pro family,” and has opposed political efforts to redefine the family (read “redefine marriage”). In fact, it’s ironic that while on the national scene McCain is seen as an enemy by some leaders of social conservatives, Phoenix
Mayor Phil Gordon is taking heat from the LGBT community in his city because he endorsed McCain. Why? Because McCain is viewed by them as being “too conservative,” and too “pro-traditional family.”
With respect to the social conservative leaders, there is one very important question to ask: What if McCain wins the presidency without their help? Based on historic demographic and political alignments, a Republican presidential candidate can’t win without the blessing of the social conservative king makers. But demographics and political alignments are changing rapidly, and the old rules may not apply this year.
McCain has surprised the world over the past six months with his turnaround candidacy. His biggest surprise may still be forthcoming — right within the Republican Party itself.