For the 2004 election, Karl Rove resolved to avoid a too-close-to-call repeat of the 2000 contest. He believed as many as 4 million white evangelical voters failed to show up in the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Four years later, President Bush was enjoying strong approval ratings as a “war president,” but Rove wasn’t taking any chances. He set out to inflame conservative fear with a campaign strategy built on a theme of “Gays, Guns and God.”
White evangelical voters are a fickle lot. They don’t support just any Republican. They need to be courted. Wined and dined, you might say. John McCain, who never cared for social conservatives or their penchant for governmental control over private behavior, saw 2 million fewer white evangelical votes than President Bush did four years prior. Even more stayed home in 2012.
In launching his 2016 campaign at Liberty University, Ted Cruz was making clear his intention to be the Republican candidate of the “gays, guns and God” bloc. But, according to Bloomberg Politics‘ Dave Weigel and Ben Brody, the Texas senator is aiming higher than Rove did. Cruz, they said, is banking on the theory “that 8 million to 9 million white evangelical voters haven’t been turning out. As many as 35 million of their peers had, but if the exit polls were right, enough evangelicals stayed home to lose states like Ohio and Florida” in 2008 and 2012.
So Cruz cut to the chase in Lynchburg: “Roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine, instead, millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
It’s a gamble, as presidential politics tends to be. But his odds are made longer by two factors. One is obvious. Cruz is hoping to double the “gays, guns and God” bloc — 4 million more than Rove got. Not easy. The other reason is more complicated, and it has nothing to do with immigration.
Immigration, liberal commentators pointed out within hours of Cruz’s announcement, was a serious concern among white evangelicals. Indeed, immigration may be a wedge issue facing the entire GOP presidential field. In Cruz’s case, he has sounded a jeremiad against “amnesty” since he took office in 2010, but most evangelicals favor, on moral grounds, a path toward citizenship. In other words, Cruz’s position on immigration is stark, while the position of the constituency he is courting is nuanced.
It’s interesting, this search for a wedge issue among Republicans vis-à-vis immigration, but it’s doomed. White evangelical voters don’t vote for things; they vote against them. And they vote against things by voting for the man who’s against them. Cruz does indeed oppose immigration reform — he pulls at the nativist’s heart strings — but that’s not going to deter the “gays, guns and God” bloc. What deters such voters is a Republican Party insufficiently committed to annihilating gay marriage.
Here, I think, are the makings of a wedge issue. Gay marriage may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a constitutional resolution, but it has been settled socially and culturally, according to public opinion polls. The difference is that we are now seeing that resolution’s political effects. Recent bids by legislatures in Indiana and Arkansas to permit discrimination in the guise of religious liberty were meet with vehement resistance, not from liberal activists so much as the Republican Party’s largest and most powerful wing: business. To be anti-gay is now to be anti-business. If Ted Cruz is smart — and he is — he won’t give the business establishment reason to worry.
From the point of view of someone who genuinely believes that homosexuals, in seeking the blessings of marriage, are defying the will of God, this is infuriating. If the Republicans don’t defend “American values,” who will? GOP candidates are clever enough to find ways of dodging the issue. They’ll say they are personally against it, but defer to the will of the people. They’ll say it’s a matter for the states to decide. These are unsatisfying answers, because they don’t reflect the paranoid authoritarian tendencies of white evangelicals.
To be sure, Republicans like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are defying the business establishment. In an Op-Ed on Thursday’s New York Times, he said: “As the fight for religious liberty moves to Louisiana, I have a clear message for any corporation that contemplates bullying our state: Save your breath.” You might say he’s pandering to white evangelicals, and you’d be right, but that’s not all. Jindal is probably running for vice president. After Indiana and Arkansas, it’s clear the business establishment does not want an anti-gay plank on the GOP’s 2016 platform. But if the nominee can’t openly defend “American values,” at least Jindal can.
Even so, that ticket — in which the presidential nominee appeases the business wing while the vice-presidential nominee appeases white evangelicals — is vulnerable to attack. The Democratic Party’s operatives might consider exploiting it. White evangelical voters are fickle for a reason: they are absolutists. A qualified stand against “the encroaching secular theocracy” is the same thing as surrendering to secularization, which is inconceivable to them. In light of debacles in Indiana and Arkansas, the Democrats can now sow the seeds of doubt: The business wing runs the GOP, so the GOP opposes “religious freedom.” With nowhere else to go, that might be enough for the “gays, guns and God” bloc to stay home in 2016.