The first votes of the 2016 campaign won’t be cast for another year but there’s already a race well underway: The Christian primary.
Republicans are actively courting white evangelical and born again Christian voters, knowing they will be crucial in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is urging people to join him next month in Baton Rouge for a day of fasting, repentance and prayer focused on the future of the United States.
On the same day, another gathering will take place in Des Moines, where at least five potential GOP presidential candidates will address Iowa voters on “core principles” that include “social conservatism.”
In August, Marco Rubio spoke at South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan’s “Faith and Freedom” fundraiser. Jindal, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee addressed the Iowa Family Leader Summit in that same month. And in November, Ben Carson was the keynote speaker at the Family Leader’s annual fundraising dinner.
“It looks like we are going to have more social conservative candidates than we did the last time,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “It is going to be very competitive.”
That’s great for social conservatives who are yearning for Republican presidential candidates to speak openly and forcefully about the issues they care about: abortion, religious liberty, and same sex marriage, among others. But a competitive primary could wind up hurting their cause if they aren’t able to unite behind one or two candidates.
The splintering of white evangelical and born again Christians may provide an opening for a more centrist candidate to win the Republican nomination — leaving social conservatives, once again, frustrated that a candidate of their political stripe failed to win.
“From my perspective, it would be a whole lot wiser for us to coalesce behind one candidate than divide up,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader. “But that is easier said than done. I think you let the process play out and if there is an opening, then coalesce. I think you try to do it, but I am not confident.”
This lack of certainty has some leaders in the social conservative movement already engaged in discussions about how to avoid diluting their power, especially in Iowa and South Carolina.
For these leaders, the hope is to prevent a repeat of 2012 when Mitt Romney — considered the more centrist, establishment candidate — won the nomination in a crowded field of self-described social conservatives. Romney was initially declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses by a mere eight votes over Santorum, who made social conservatism a major part of his campaign.
Several weeks later, after all the caucus votes were certified, it was announced that Santorum, not Romney, had actually won Iowa. But it was too late. Romney had the wind at his back and eventually went on to win the nomination.
A review of the 2012 Iowa caucus entrance poll shows that Santorum won the white evangelical and born Christian vote with 32%, while the remaining support split among five of his rivals: Ron Paul, 19%; Newt Gingrich, 14%; Perry, 14%; and Michele Bachmann, 5%.
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