How the Christian right could defeat Rudy -- and make Hillary president

Salon crunches the numbers -- what happens to the 2008 electoral map if a third-party social conservative enters the race, as threatened, against Giuliani and Clinton?

Published October 19, 2007 1:55PM (EDT)

One of Rudy Giuliani's chief attractions to Republican primary voters is supposed to be electability. "We're going to need the strongest possible Republican who can win in every state," the former New York City mayor said during an August campaign stop, "and I'm the only one who can do that." Giuliani, the narrative goes, can change the electoral map of the country, taking stronghold states away from the Democrats and providing the last, best defense against the looming specter of President Hillary Clinton.

But the largest single voting bloc in the GOP is not ready for the coronation of a pro-choice candidate like Giuliani. A group of key Christian conservative leaders voted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Salt Lake City to consider supporting a socially conservative third-party candidate if Giuliani is the Republican nominee; the same group will meet in Washington on Saturday for further discussion of the third-party option. Conservative anger is real, at least for now. As longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie, who was at the first meeting, told Salon, "If Giuliani is the nominee, it will be the end of the Republican Party. There's no way that conservatives are going to continue to play the role of mistress, and here's a man who's wrong on every single social issue." Viguerie predicts disaster for a Giuliani candidacy. "In a two-way race, I think he'd be hard-pressed to get 40 percent of the vote. In a three-way race, he won't come close."

A Rasmussen poll conducted in early October seemed to confirm that a third-party conservative challenger would be devastating to the GOP. Rasmussen asked 800 likely voters about a three-way race among Giuliani, Clinton and a generic third-party candidate "backed by Christian conservative leaders." Clinton got 46 percent of the vote, Giuliani managed 30 percent, and the hypothetical third-party candidate polled 14 percent -- including 27 percent of self-identified Republican voters. The poll, and the strong feelings of conservative Christian leaders like Viguerie, raised an interesting question. Changing the electoral map means delivering enough votes in the Electoral College to win -- just how would Giuliani change the electoral map if his candidacy sparked a third-party challenge?

Early polls, especially polls taken more than a year in advance of the general election, should be taken with a pound or 10 of salt. If they were that meaningful, Howard Dean would've been the Democratic nominee in 2004, and Ross Perot would've won the 1992 election. Respondents often don't make good on their threats to back a third-party challenger. Those third-party candidates who've done best in recent history -- Perot, John Anderson -- appealed to the disaffected middle. Ralph Nader, meanwhile, had enough appeal to angry liberals in 2000 to poll as high as 7 percent, but fewer than 2 percent of voters actually followed through that November. There is also the distinct possibility that the whole third-party scenario is pure bluster, that after much harrumphing evangelicals will nix a challenger and return to the GOP fold in strength come Election Day.

Still, crunching the numbers and coloring in maps is a fun parlor game, and a fair one in light of the Giuliani campaign's own efforts in that direction. On Oct. 2, the Politico's Jonathan Martin posted PDFs of an electoral map prepared by the Giuliani campaign, which purported to show the results of a Clinton-Giuliani showdown in November 2008. The campaign's numbers, which are contradicted by independent polling, are rather ... optimistic. The Giuliani map shows Clinton taking only Washington, D.C., Vermont and Massachusetts and their 18 electoral votes, while Giuliani is just 60 electoral votes from the magic total of 270 and the rest of the country is in play.

Salon's map, based on prior voting habits and recent polling, shows something rather different. If a third-party conservative entered the race, a Giuliani candidacy really would redraw the electoral map. But that realignment would favor Clinton, not Giuliani, and make her presidency a virtual fait accompli. Here's how we did the math:

In 2004, 40 percent of all of President Bush's votes nationwide came from self-described white evangelicals. Assuming that all of the 27 percenters who told Rasmussen this month that they would vote for a third-party candidate were white evangelicals, this would mean that 67.5 percent, or roughly two-thirds, of all white evangelicals nationally who had voted for Bush would jump to the third-party candidate. (Political operatives with whom Salon spoke estimated that 80 to 90 percent of those leaving the Republican tent in such a scenario would be evangelicals. And when Salon asked Giuliani's own pollster, Ed Goeas, in May if he had any idea what percentage of Republican primary voters would not vote for a pro-choice candidate, Goeas responded, "I would say that it's probably -- hovers somewhere in the mid-to-low 20s.") Salon's method may potentially exaggerate the number of Republican losses, but Salon also did not take into account factors that might swell the ranks of defectors still further, like the current unpopularity of President Bush, recent Democratic gains in the Mountain West and local GOP scandals.

Salon then used the National Election Pool exit-poll data to determine the total number of white evangelicals casting votes in each of the states that went for Bush in 2004. We then took each state total of evangelical voters and subtracted 67.5 percent to produce a predicted Giuliani vote. In 10 out of the 31 states that voted for Bush, the consortium that conducted the exit polls did not ask voters if they considered themselves evangelical. Thus Salon made no calculations for Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming, and didn't assign them to either the Clinton or the Giuliani column.

There are 538 total electoral votes up for grabs in a presidential election; 270 are needed for victory. According to Salon's analysis, in the three-way race polled by Rasmussen, Giuliani could count on just eight states, for a total of 48 electoral votes. Clinton, meanwhile, would take 14 states away from the Republicans, giving her an extra 121 electoral votes. Making yet another assumption -- that Clinton wouldn't lose any of the states that John Kerry won in 2004 -- that would put her very comfortably over the top with a total of 373 electoral votes, a 103-vote cushion. Crucially, it would wipe out the GOP's solid South, demonstrating just how important white evangelical voters have proved to the GOP's dominance in the region that is the source of its national strength.

The 10 "red" states for which no data on evangelical voting habits was available include some, like Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia, where the GOP margin for error is slim, and others -- Alaska, Wyoming and Utah -- likely to stay red regardless. Louisiana, whose heavy population losses in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina complicate electoral predictions for that state, was also left out of the tally, but it too would probably remain red. In all, that leaves 117 electoral votes unassigned to either Giuliani or Clinton.

The Giuliani campaign might take issue with this assessment, though neither pollster Goeas nor a campaign spokeswoman responded to requests for comment. The public release of the campaign's own speculative maps, which put bright blue strongholds like California and New England in the "swing state" column, was greeted by some observers, including conservatives, with open mockery. In a post at the Corner, a National Review blog, Ramesh Ponnuru asked of the map, "Were the campaign strategists drunk when they drew it?" and linked to the blog of one Christopher Potter Stewart, who titled his post on the subject, "We're No Senior Political Strategist, But We're Calling Bullsh*t on This." The Politico's Martin was more circumspect. "This is a neat tool to fire up donors and sway activists," he wrote on his blog, "but Rudy rivals and neutral observers will find much to dispute in these projections."

Repeating the usual caveats about early polls, independent polling thus far seems to confirm that the Giuliani campaign's idea of which states it can put in play is inflated. The campaign asserts that California, New York and New Jersey would be swing states in a Clinton-Giuliani general election. A Rasmussen poll released Sept. 20 showed Clinton up 10 points over Giuliani in California, and a SurveyUSA poll released just more than a week later showed her up 20. (The difference can be partially attributed to the margin of error in each poll, and also to the fact that Rasmussen had both an "other" and a "not sure" category, while SurveyUSA had just "undecided.") In New York, a SurveyUSA poll released Oct. 1 showed Clinton up 24 points. In New Jersey, one of the blue states considered most at risk for a flip, a recent Rasmussen poll put Clinton at 51 percent and Giuliani at 40 percent, outside the margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

All this points up again just how important the evangelical vote has become to the GOP's margin of victory in recent years. More than that, however, evangelicals have been able to exert influence within the party because they form its single largest and most unified voting bloc, and have served as foot soldiers in the party's vaunted get-out-the-vote efforts. In a survey he conducted earlier this year, intended to provide a picture of the party, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio found that of what he described as seven groups within the party, the group he called "moralists" was the largest, at 24 percent. "In 1997, there were five segments of the party, four of which were roughly in parity with each other in size," Fabrizio said in an interview. "In 2007, there are seven segments of the party, of which now the moralists are the single largest segment. While they haven't grown in size, they ... appear to be larger, because they speak, generally, with one voice on the issues that are important to them."

Early primary polls show a higher level of evangelical support for Giuliani than had once been expected -- though evangelicals tend to like the former mayor less than other Republican groups do -- but one of the many drawbacks to early polls is that they are largely reflective of name recognition, and "America's Mayor" has plenty. There's no way to tell just how much those evangelicals who express support for Giuliani know about him, his positions on social issues and his personal life.

What is certain, though, is that many prominent evangelical leaders express a profound distaste for the man and a resolute stance against his candidacy, no matter what the implications are for Republican electoral hopes.

Appearing on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" shortly after news of the first meeting to discuss the possibility of a third-party candidacy in the event of Giuliani's nomination, James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, stood up strongly against co-host Sean Hannity, who noted that a third-party conservative challenge could produce a Clinton presidency. Questioned about the impact a Clinton administration would have on the courts, compared with Giuliani's promises to appoint judges who would be acceptable to social conservatives, Dobson was dismissive. "It will be terrible, Sean," Dobson said of the possibility that Hillary Clinton could make appointments to the Supreme Court. "But you're taking Rudy's word on his intention to appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court, and I would like to remind you that he has a terrible record in New York of appointing judges."

In an interview with Salon, Janet Folger, the president of Faith2Action, said she didn't support the idea of a third-party run, preferring former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who she believes will win the Republican nomination and the presidency. However, she warned that it's her belief that even without a third candidate in the mix the nomination of either Giuliani or Mitt Romney would guarantee Republican defeat in the general election. "Hillary et al. will have an activated, motivated base, while our people at most will go pull a lever, then go home and take a shower," Folger said. "They won't do the heavy lifting necessary, and everyone involved in politics knows that it's the pro-lifers who hammer in the signs and man the phone banks. We're the ones who are most highly motivated because we're the ones who want to stop the killing."

If evangelical leaders do make good on their promises, it could be disastrous for the Republican Party, possibly for years to come. Over the past decade, Fabrizio's survey showed, the party has become older and more conservative. This base and its demands have prevented the party from reaching out to demographic groups like Hispanics that are growing in numbers and importance, and many political observers believe the party is headed for a cliff. One of those is Dan Gurley, the Republican National Committee's field director during the 2004 election, who told Salon that though he remains a Republican the party can no longer automatically count on his vote. "People like Dobson ... have fundamentally changed the face of the Republican Party, and not for the better ... I think that's a fundamental flaw that this party has right now; they keep narrowing this focus of who they're appealing to, or at least they have in the past ... If the party doesn't embrace the kind of change that is out there in the way that our country's demographics are changing, the way the public's attitudes are changing on lots of things, they're going to relegate themselves to a permanent minority."

And of course, losing a significant potion of their base, as the party might in the case of a Giuliani nomination and an ensuing third-party run, would only accelerate that process. Such a fracture is one Richard Viguerie says has been long in coming. "The train has left the station in terms of social conservatives and I think probably the majority of economic conservatives, feeling that the relationship with the GOP will be different going forward. We've just been used and abused and lied to and betrayed enough ... We're like the biblical Jews, who couldn't get to the Promised Land until that leadership of the Jews of that time had passed from the scene. Conservatives are not going to get to the political Promised Land until we get new leadership ... [And] we're not going to wait for them to pass from the scene, we're gonna push them."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2004 Elections 2008 Elections Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani