The Iowa caucuses are a week away and Republican candidates are pulling out all the stops on value voting – including soliciting the help of past and present Christian heavyweights – to convince voters why they are the best person to represent evangelical Christians in the White House.
Yet both voters and pundits are starting to wonder just how big an impact religion and values voters will play in the 2012 elections.
There are several reasons why the Iowa caucuses matter, but one that ranks toward the top is that it serves as a bellwether for the Christian vote in future primaries. After all, the Iowa caucuses will test the intensity of a campaign. If you can get people to come to a caucus with temperatures sometimes hovering near zero, you may face much less resistance in the sunny South.
But there are bumps in the value voter road. Last week, and in an effort to mobilize Christian voters to get behind a single candidate in the Hawkeye state, noted evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats personally endorsed Rick Santorum, who only sometimes polls higher than GOP last-placer Jon Hunstman; a feat that was itself overshadowed by his asking Michele Bachmann to quit the race just a few days prior even though she is running much stronger in Iowa than Santorum.
Now his endorsement is coming under intense scrutiny for reportedly asking the Santorum campaign for financial support to promote the endorsement. (The tactic is not new, and is used by many Democrats to get out the Black vote in the South.)
Dr. John Green, a political science professor at The University of Akron and a noted expert in politics and religion, doesn’t think religious endorsements will play a central role in the 2012 elections.
“We usually see more religious appeals in a primary than we do in a general election because that’s where they are more effective,” Green told The Christian Post. “The Iowa caucuses are a great example of where Republican candidates make a strong run on moral issues.”
Green said in the 2012 general election religious appeals will be made “in a more indirect manner as opposed to direct references in speeches or in debates.”
“Religion can be a potent political weapon but it can also work against you. I suspect President Obama and whoever the GOP candidate is will weigh the religion option carefully before using.”
Still, many Christians look to certain pastors and national leaders for a confirmation that certain candidates have the values and beliefs that align with their own.
Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, spent most of the 1990s as the executive director of the Christian Coalition, a group that played an important role in helping elect conservatives to federal and state office.
Does Reed think endorsements from Christian leaders help certain candidates?
“It’s hard to say,” he said in an email response to The Christian Post. “I think Rick [Santorum] would probably rather have those endorsements than not. But endorsements, like the social conservative vote itself, have been fairly divided up and fractured, with prominent pastors and leaders of different organizations going in different directions.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul are in large part ignoring the value element and focusing on the economic and foreign policy failures of President Obama.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is courting the value voter hard but has never been fully exonerated for his past marital indiscretions. The best example is his failure to secure the endorsement of The Family Leader, which Vander Plaats heads up.
“That is why we at Faith and Freedom have chosen not to endorse,” added Reed. “We are making sure our members and supporters attend the caucuses and are well trained on being effective once they get there. The evangelical vote is divided not because there is no good candidate, but because there are so many good candidates and they have all made an aggressive appeal to the voters.”
But one Iowa pastor believes some endorsements and value voters can make a difference in such a tight election.
“Yes, we’ve got a bunch of choices, too many some would say,” Iowa pastor Marvin Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “Our people are excited about people like Michele Bachmann and others that are running that are unashamedly believers in Jesus Christ.”
Penny Nance, who heads the influential group, Concerned Women for America, agrees that the best advice the GOP candidates can take is to not ignore “values” issues.
“I know we say this every cycle, but this is the most important election in our lifetime,” said Nance. “Voting is one of the most important civic duties we undertake and as Christians, if we’re not happy with the way things are going then we need to exercise that right to correct the path we are on. So, yes, the values voter will matter in 2012.”