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The Evangelical Shift that Wasn't

July 23rd, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One fo the narratives of this campaign season has been evangelicals newfound freedom from the tyranny of the Republican party.  Ironically, the seeds to the narrative were sown back in the fall when the candidate whom evangelicals prominently supported (Huckabee) was painted by the Republican establishment as a closet Democrat.  Around that time, I wrote:

The ferocity of the attacks on Huckabee has risked alienating young voters like myself. Hugh recently wrote that evangelicals are not easily led, or subject to dog whistles,” And in this, he is exactly right. But the story of this campaign is that evangelicals will not follow the dog whistles of the mainstream GOP, which has rejected “compassionate conservatism” wholesale. Our position in the GOP is less secure than it was four years ago, as evidenced by Giuliani’s position as frontrunner for the bulk of this campaign.

If anything, Huckabee’s rise is indicative of evangelicals’ refusal to let the mainstream GOP take them for granted any longer. The pundits said that Huckabee wasn’t a player–evangelicals put him into the top tier. The pundits explained that Huckabee wasn’t electable. Evangelicals have made him electable.

It is an irony of history that the candidate whom the Republican intelligentsia most strenuously opposed was the most sympathetic voice for the people on the issue that will probably determine this election:  the economy.  While Huckabee was belittled by conservatives for his populist rhetoric, it is clearly the more sympathetic sounding position, and one that will probably charm voters this fall.  Advantage, Obama.

Of course, the narrative that evangelicals are disenchanted with Republicans continued into the spring, with rumblings that they are migrating away from Republicans and toward Obama.  Given the treatment of Huckabee last fall, this is unsurprising.  Except, of course, that they haven't been:

Now, it may be true that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has failed to get many folks, including evangelicals, excited about him. But given all the coverage to the contrary, I was somewhat surprised to see the results of a new Pew study that indicates that Obama is getting slightly fewer — that’s right — fewer white evangelical supporters than John Kerry was at the same time four years ago...

Twenty-six percent of white evangelicals supported Kerry at this time in 2004. This year, 25 percent of white evangelicals support Obama. Some migration!

It would be interesting to note the age breakdown in the study.  If there is a divide in evangelicalism, it falls along generational lines.  Huckabee and Obama both did very well with younger crowds, which suggests to me that if there is a shift towards Obama from evangelicals, it will be the 30-and under crowd that will lead it.

The real story, though, is that 26% of evangelicals supported John Kerry at this point in 2004.  Why didn't we hear about that then?

(HT:  Justin)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.