When seeking to establish a base among evangelical voters, presidential contender, Governor Mike Huckabee, made a big mistake. It is one that many presidential wannabes have made before him. He went over the heads of the evangelical leaders of influence and talked directly to the people. It works well with most constituencies, Catholics, Labor, Jews, Hispanics, Women but it never works with Blacks and it never works with evangelicals either. It cost Mike Huckabee the presidential primary in South Carolina and it will probably cost him the nomination.
In fairness, presidential candidates seeking the evangelical vote almost always do the same thing and they have a very good reason for skipping the meet and greet with the controversial leaders. Evangelical leaders have been thoroughly demonized. Have your picture taken with Pat Robertson and see your general election numbers decline. In 1988, running the George H. W. Bush effort to conservative constituents, we made sure the candidate met privately and often with such leaders, but always under the radar screen. Even in group meetings, we kept Jerry Falwell a few bodies away from the candidate, out of the picture. Our secretly obtained polling showed Falwell as a negative even with evangelicals, let alone non-evangelicals. And yet still we needed him to bring in his little piece. And we got the job done, meeting with fully 1,000 of the top evangelical leaders in one on one or small groups and we did this two years before the GOP convention when no one was looking. So much for all this nonsense about how early the candidates are working this cycle. In November, 1988, Bush, Senior carried 81% of the evangelical vote. It is a record that still stands. But remember, most of our hard work was done two years before.
In 2000, George W. Bush could not copy this successful formula, one that he had helped develop. In 1998, when he should have finished all of this messy business, he had to stay focused on re-election as governor of Texas. He couldn’t show the slightest interest in running for president or see his re-election numbers wane and as a result see his fund raising plans fail. Afterward, it was too late. Influenced by Karl Rove, the younger Bush decided to avoid the risk of meeting evangelical leaders and went direct to the evangelical voters through message and print. When asked in the Iowa debate to name his favorite political philosopher Bush ignored the intent of the question and announced, “Christ because he changed my heart.” Mailers were cutely devised with all the various evangelical groups in mind. But it didn’t work. The leaders were skeptical. Four million evangelicals stayed home and Al Gore took a healthy share of the rest of them. Bush, who lost the popular vote, only won the close electoral decision with help from the Supreme Court.
It has been the same with Black voters. For thirty years Republican consultants were heralding a new more conservative middle class Black vote. Like today’s evangelical consultants, they flashed polls, telling candidates that they could win the vote through direct voter contact. “Ignore the Black leaders, take it to the people. There are large numbers of Black voters tired of crime and disillusioned with failed social policies, go after them.” But no matter many speeches they made or how many mailings they targeted, the Black votes, eventually, always lined up with their leaders in the end.
Two year ago, when Mike Huckabee should have been meeting with every evangelical leader of influence in the country, his people were rejecting overtures. A consultant for Billy Graham was told, “Not interested.” Another went to Mitt Romney. The former political consultant to Alan Keyes was ignored. She went to Duncan Hunter and talked him into running for president. Was it ignorance or arrogance? Was it an inexperienced team in place that doubted themselves and so feared newcomers as a threat? A presidential campaign must suck up every volunteer and well intentioned offer like a vacuum cleaner. Staffers only benefit from the rising tide. You won’t have a job anyway if your man isn’t elected. Or was it a strategic decision? More likely the latter. Not much happens by accident and surely the governor would be curious, “Why aren’t we meeting with Richard Land? Can’t anyone get me an invite to Bill Hybels?”
The result was tragic. Judge Paul Pressler, the controversial organizer of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptists Convention, went to Fred Thompson. And so did many other Southern Baptists. Enough to lose South Carolina.
Rightly sensing that Charismatics and Pentecostals were the key to Iowa, Huckabee, a Southern Baptist, told Pentecostal congregations, “My church was more like yours than a typical Southern Baptist.” It was music to their ears but as most evangelicals know, Pentecostals will vote for a Southern Baptist but not the other way around. Huckabee was courting disaster and he needed hundreds of surrogate evangelical and Southern Baptist leaders of influence out there to help keep the herd of cats together.
Nowhere did all of this matter more than in the northern counties of South Carolina, where Baptists and Pentecostals have had a long history. For years Baptists had suffered under the influence of the Pentecostal PTL Empire, headquartered a few miles across the State border, and they resented PTL for defining so much about their own faith and culture. Inroads in those counties by Thompson were deadly to the Huckabee effort.
A few months ago, the Mike Huckabee campaign finally started the work of touching base with evangelical leaders of influence. Among others, they met with Ken Copeland, one of the nation’s top televangelists. Last night the Governor called his friend in the middle of a conference and Copeland, carefully observing all the laws governing non profits, as a private citizen, re-convened a private meeting, turned to his friends and raised $111,000 in cash and reportedly a cool million in promises for Huckabee. One wonders what would have happened if this had all been done two years ago, if the campaign had reached out to the leaders of influence before anyone was watching? How much money would have poured in on its own after Iowa?
The moral of the story is that Evangelicals, like Blacks, follow the leader in politics. As true believers, who take their religion seriously, once evangelicals do their due diligence and line up with a particular ministry on matters of eternity and the hereafter, following that same ministry over a temporal presidential choice is not really very difficult.
Huckabee can still win. Television pundits who keep warning that “He really has to break out of his evangelical support group if he wants to get the nomination,” reveal their ignorance. No one says that Barack Obama has to break out of the Black support group. And Blacks number only 14% of the American population. Born again Christians number 42%. Huckabee can win the nomination if he can just get them. He doesn’t have to break out. McCain and Romney have to break in. The problem for Huckabee is that they may already have done that. His work of courting the evangelical leaders was begun too late and too ineptly. It may be too late.
The lesson for future presidential contenders on the GOP is don’t believe snake oil salesmen who offer mailing lists and claim they can win you the evangelical vote because they ran that effort for someone else. They have no magic lists. Don’t waste your money. There is really only one way to win evangelicals and that is the hard way, the old retail way, the power game so common of Ward Politics. You have to humble yourself and meet with the leaders. Just sit out there in their waiting room, two years out, and let them preen and ask their condescending questions. Do you want to be president or no? Two years later, when you are more famous than them, you can make them wait in the West Wing Lobby all afternoon for their five minutes with you at the table in the Roosevelt Room.