America’s Mayor’s Achilles Heel
Religious elites can live with him but religious base won't come out for him.


Worse news for the Rudy campaign comes from a recent Pew Forum Poll, which found that:

A solid majority of Republican white evangelicals (55-percent) say they would at least consider voting for a conservative third-party candidate if the general election is between Giuliani and Clinton. Overall, 44 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters say they would consider backing a third-party candidate who holds more conservative positions than Giuliani on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Of course, what citizens would consider as a course of action, is perhaps not a good indicator of their future political behavior. But it does expose deep ambivalence among socially conservative voters, if not disaffection.

Others suggest rank and file social conservative voters will nonetheless fall in behind leaders like Pat Robertson. One problem with this view is that it assumes Robertson has a rank and file to lead. Robertson’s endorsement might have meant something ten years ago when he sat atop a thriving Christian Coalition. Today his endorsement means almost nothing because the Coalition has collapsed.

This reality dawned on Republican Party elites after the relatively poor turnout of evangelicals in 2000 caused President Bush to lose the popular vote. So in 2004, Republicans did not lean on Christian Right organizations to get out the evangelical voter. While the Democratic Party continued its longstanding practice of mobilizing voters through auxiliary organizations, such as unions and MoveOn, the Republican Party centralized its grassroots mobilization in its campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. It did so to great effect. Political scientists Sidney Milkis and Jess Rhodes conclude in the most recent issue of Perspectives on Politics that the Bush-Cheney campaign built a “tightly disciplined grassroots organization” that included well over one million volunteers. These volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, organized rallies, and registered some 3.4 million new Republican voters between 2002 and 2004.

The success of bypassing leaders like Robertson depended on the personal appeal of George W. Bush. One official in Ohio, Milkis and Rhodes report, emphasized that the Party’s mobilization efforts were fueled by “volunteers’ admiration for and loyalty to George W. Bush” as well as frequent visits by the president to “fire up” the rank and file.

A major question on Milkis and Rhodes’ mind is whether the Bush-Cheney machine can be recreated. The answer partly depends on who the Republicans nominate — a fact that underscores an important disadvantage vis-à-vis the Democratic Party. While unions and MoveOn are durable organizations that can be counted on every election, the success of the Bush-Cheney model depends on the recreation of a personalized party organization every four years.

Even if Rudy wins the nomination and employs someone as talented as Karl Rove to build his campaign machinery, it is unlikely he can command the loyalty and devotion of evangelical citizens in critical battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. While Bush is a socially conservative born-again evangelical, Rudy is thrice divorced, publicly adulterous, and a social liberal to boot.

Indeed, Giuliani’s reported glee over Robertson’s endorsement reflects a profound failure to appreciate the new realities of Republican-party politics. Old-line leaders like Robertson now have little sway among ordinary social conservatives, many of whom have become disillusioned with a party that seems largely indifferent to their deepest concerns. So, even if Giuliani succeeds in getting most leaders on the religious right to support him in a general election match-up with Hillary Clinton, his candidacy is not likely to ignite the social conservative base in ways that enabled Bush to triumph in 2004. After all, churchgoing Americans are not likely to pound the pavement next fall on behalf of a candidate whose personal conduct while holding elected office, is reminiscent of Bill Clinton. For this reason, the foot soldiers associated with the unions and MoveOn could very well win the turnout wars and help propel another Clinton to the White House.

W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. Jon A. Shields is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado—Colorado Springs.