Just Win Baby: The Religious Right Rallies Around Rudy
Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani is the first sign that the religious right may be beginning to circle the wagons in the 2008 GOP presidential race. Despite threats by evangelical leaders to bolt for a third party conservative candidate, it appears increasingly likely they will hold their noses and support the socially liberal Giuliani. After all, the desperate state of the Republican Party gives them little choice.
The timing of Robertson's turnabout is significant. In early October, a Rasmussen poll showed that 27% of Republicans would vote for conservative Christian third party rather than the GOP should Giuliani win the nomination. A more recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 55% of white evangelicals "said they would consider a conservative who ran as a third-party candidate" faced with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. (Evangelicals constitute 34% of voters supporting or leaning towards the GOP.) And just weeks ago, leaders of national evangelical groups including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and conservative godfather Richard Viguerie met in Salt Lake City to consider a third party alternative to Giuliani. While former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee continues to build evangelical support, Giuliani garnered less than 2% in the straw poll the recent Values Voter Summit. Heading into the first primaries, the evangelicals seem split.
But beggars can't be choosers. With approval ratings dipping into the twenties, President Bush is now less popular than Richard Nixon at the end of his Watergate disaster. Despite the low public support for Congress, Republicans continue to trail Democrats in generic congressional polls. Across virtually every issue, Americans trust Democrats over Republicans, usually by large margins. Iraq, high energy prices, the dual housing and credit crises, and the stench of GOP of corruption scandals continue to plague the Republicans, as evidenced by their resounding defeats in Kentucky and Virginia in off-year elections last night.
Given the dramatic decay of the Republican Party, the leaders of the religious right simply no longer have the luxury of rejecting Rudy Giuliani on the grounds of ideological purity. Despite the trepidation of James Dobson, Tony Perkins and the late Jerry Falwell ("We have probably irreconcilable differences on life and family and that kind of thing...I couldn't support him for president"), the pro-choice, thrice-married and occasionally cross-dressing Giuliani is clearly their best hope in the general election.
The dismal state of the Republican Party signals two major changes in 2008 compared to the past two election cycles. First, evangelicals, who constitute 34% of those supporting or leaning towards the GOP, will not have the veto power during the '08 primaries they enjoyed in elevating George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Perhaps more important, to win in November 2008, the GOP will have to come up with a replacement for Karl Rove's tried and true formula of "Divide, Suppress and Conquer." If Giuliani's nomination drives some of the Republicans' evangelical faithful to stay at home on Election Day, then the GOP will have to compete for independent voters he alone among Republicans can attract. Just mobilizing the right-wing base with red meat issues and suppressing the Democratic and independent vote won't be enough.
There can be little doubt that Rudy Giuliani is an odious choice for most religious right voters. But any Democratic nominee - and especially Hillary Clinton - is even worse. The lure of Mike Huckabee or a third party notwithstanding, they have nowhere else to go. With Pat Robertson's pronouncement today that Rudy Giuliani is "more than acceptable to people of faith," it appears that the GOP evangelical allies have decided to heed the mantra of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: "just win baby."
UPDATE: As Kevin Drum noted, the National Review's Rich Lowry claims this is the just the start of the movement of social conservatives to line up behind Giuliani as the presumptive nominee:
Just talked to a top social conservative. He says, hinting that more prominent social cons will end up going with Rudy, "There's plenty more where this comes from." On the impact of the Robertson endorsement on the race: "What it does for Rudy is it says, 'It's OK to vote for Rudy.' I think there will be more of that, pre-nomination and post-nomination." On conservative evangelical voters and Giuliani: "If Rudy is the nominee, they're going to vote for him - period."