When CNN decided that the GOP race was down to only Senator John McCain and Mitt Romney, and arbitrarily decided that it would use the Republican Debate at the Reagan Library to showcase those two candidates and exclude Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, they effectively shut down the whole nominating process and disenfranchised millions of voters. That very night Huckabee was leading or in close contention in six southern states. There was only one percentage point between Huck and Romney in national polls. It was a deadly example of how “inside the beltway” perception becomes the reality.
It was an astonishing and heartbreaking conclusion for 40 million evangelicals who in 2006 began watching the television coverage of the coming presidential race with mild amusement as pundits and networks declared that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, pro choice on abortion and pro civil unions for gays would be the nominee, or perhaps Governor Mitt Romney, who was a proponent of the same in his races for the State House in Boston but had to be a true “closet conservative” because of his conservative religion.
What about Iowa? The South? There was the vague notion that there were evangelicals out there and that they would have some influence but after all, polls didn’t lie and the polls said Giuliani. So we had a ridiculous year of discussion about the Giuliani era and the tough challenge from Romney, who was buying up all the pundits and consultants within the “Beltway” and some regrets over McCain, whose support of Iraq policy was a deadly weight around his neck and who was off doing busy, arcane things, like apologizing to Jerry Falwell for the rebuke he gave him in 2000.
Some evangelical leaders who called me were alarmed. What had happened? Where was their candidate? The media had it wrong. There were not just “some evangelicals in Iowa and the South,” they were the GOP. Once the insurgency, they were now the establishment. They controlled many of the state delegations and the rules. The outcome in Iowa had been influenced by evangelicals since 1976. Were the pundits poor historians? Or so out of touch with the evangelical world that the numbers and statistics had no flesh, no personal meaning?
Giuliani, as most evangelicals knew, was going nowhere. My article for Newsmax more than a year ago declared “the doomed candidacy” of Rudolph Giuliani. Today, pundits say he made a mistake by not going to Iowa. The fact is that he couldn’t go to Iowa. With three marriages in the cupboard the voters would have wanted to know every detail. Giuliani understood more than the media pundits.
So, evangelicals watched and howled with laughter as Iowa approached and the media interpreted it all, getting their terms mixed up, using the wrong statistics for the wrong groups, (one has to be very careful using stats on evangelicals since the various groups who issue the stats have doctrinal and social-cultural biases and are sometimes compromised by the sponsors of the polls.) It was really a moment of the emperor’s clothes. The networks were naked and millions could see it in the irrelevancy and absurdity of their reports.
Consider, 42% of the nation claims to be born again Christian. But when I was helping the Bush campaign of 1988 we stumbled across another number. Another 12% above the born again numbers of that time, thought that they should be born again. These were the relatives and acquaintances of evangelicals, people who shared the same beliefs but had not committed to them. Some of these might also vote for a person who held their values, even if they themselves didn’t live them. In some cases they could be even tougher on a candidate. And beyond that were the extended families of evangelicals who rejected the doctrines and culture but living in their communities understood it very well.
So here was a large part of the nation, watching television, hearing pundits pontificate, talking about people and how and why they were voting and it was all off. Way off. There was widespread disappointment in FOX, the network who demonstrated some diversity by including conservative arguments and views but the disconnect in understanding evangelicals was astounding.
Huckabee’s victory in Iowa not only made the pundits look rather stupid and extravagant in their two years of Giuliani-Romney babble, it also must have made them a bit angry. Evangelical amusement turned to alarm that night as MSNBC’s host and pundits openly sneered at them. The host, Keith Olberman, played a clip of Huckabee’s victory speech and said, “I don’t know if that did anything for anybody else, but it doesn’t do anything for me.”
One of his panelists said flatly of Huckabee, “I don’t like him.”
None of this was based on the Governor’s tax plans or his record in Arkansas or apparently anything else other than the man’s religion.
To their credit, MSNBC was trying to show some diversity that night. They had Pat Buchanan, a Catholic, whose Mormon sister had run his presidential campaign in 1992 and brought him Mormon dollars and help that year. He was, of course, for Romney. He had not learned how to tap into the evangelical movement in his presidential run in ‘92, he understood no better now as an observer.
There was Rachel Maddow, a gay journalist, who was quite good, although hardly an expert on evangelicals, but far from upsetting any evangelical viewers, her presence offered the hope that one day MSNBC may include a little input and representation from evangelical pundits, at least on a night in which they are playing such an important role. A little accurate information and analysis is good for the news business. And someone understanding 42 % of the American people might be just as good a marketing ploy as someone understanding 4-10%, depending on your source of data.
Particularly alarming was Keith Olberman’s heavy eyebrow probing of Huckabee after his victory. Usually, the media is nice on your winning night. After all, they will have plenty of time to go after you later. But Olberman was wondering when Huckabee’s evangelical support would become a liability? A threshold that we in the television audience knew had already long since passed for Olberman. Just imagine someone trying that with any other group of Americans. Imagine Olberman asking Senator Lieberman at what point being a Jew would start to work against him?
The problem is that no one in the media knows a real evangelical. They are only numbers and numbers are easy to hate, easy to dismiss, especially at a distance. FOX has two born againers. But both are pundits who offer a conservative view on the issues but so do dozens of conservative Catholics on the network. Neither seemed to care or understand the nuanced play of evangelical Baptists and Pentecostals, how it was hurting and helping Huckabee and how it was hugely impacting Romney, whose mammoth support in Iowa evaporated in a few days.
In that crucial week, much of the nation, the part that knew about evangelical culture and life, which is probably 70%, were oxygen deprived. Turning from channel to channel hoping to find someone in the media elite who knew what they were talking about. And, as my own e-mails reflected, they finally found it in John King at CNN.
Now, evangelicals and Latter Day Saints tend to be more international than the public at large. They are both more involved in relief work and missions and they are much more likely to end up in a hotel overseas watching CNN International than the average American. And so they have watched with dismay as the International division of CNN has turned into a “We don’t like us either” apologetics against America to the world. If a traveling American misses the home accent, they have to turn to BBC where ac correspondent sometimes interviews an American soldier in Iraq or wait a few hours for Larry King to cycle back around. So evangelicals are not predisposed to voluntarily tuning into CNN back home either. And their pundits on this subject are not any better than FOX.
What was good about CNN’s John King was that nobody knew his religion. It was the way it used to be in news. His socio-cultural, religious bias was not oozing between his lines. He was not advertising himself as an agnostic or a cultural Catholic, who no longer believed, or a Jew or New Ager or anything else.
On the night of the South Carolina primary he stole the show by offering county and precinct numbers, hard data. This was finally what the evangelical nation needed. They could interpret the rest much better than the Beltway. The numbers told us about them impact of Southern Baptists, Paul Pressler’s endorsement of Fred Thompson and the lingering fallout from the PTL scandal in the 70’s and how Baptists and Pentecostals still chaffed under it in their different ways. It was a fascinating night, revealing, and all the better because John King, like Sergeant Friday, gave “just the facts, Mam.”
And then came the debate at the Reagan Library. Huckabee, leading in Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas was literally shut out. Sitting on the end of the table, with Ron Paul to buffer him, CNN hosts peppered McCain and Romney with questions. They had decided it was a two man race.
Mitt Romney did not have enough money to buy that moment with CNN. And yet, in a way he had. By buying up all the conservative operators inside beltway, ala Steve Forbes in 2000, he created a word of mouth headwind that finally created perception. Polls didn’t matter, even the way the polls had demonstratively worked with evangelicals in Iowa, where they had slipped away like snow melting in the sunshine, rather than go to a Mormon, were not even considered. And the candidacy of Mike Huckabee took a fatal hit.
The perception was indeed the reality. On yesterday’s news ticker, CNN listed four stories on Romney, two each on McCain, Clinton and Obama. Zero for Huckabee. A command CNN decision. He is out.
Needless to say, Mike Huckabee has since dropped in the overnight tracking but surprise, surprise, it is actually cutting more to McCain than Romney. This may be a political primary season that the media has never understood. Not as it was coming, not as it happened, and probably even as it leaves but you can be sure someone will write a book about.
Any future Mike Huckabee had better learn a lesson well. Having the votes is not enough. Even winning the first caucus is not enough. Somehow the media has to know how you won and how you can put your votes together in the future and why. Huckabee’s lack of representation in Washington was part of his charm but it also may have led to his heartbreaking night at the Reagan Library, a moment which millions of evangelicals shared, when they saw their votes and voices extinguished with his own.