Politics & Policy

America’s Mayor’s Achilles Heel

Religious elites can live with him but religious base won't come out for him.

Rudy Giuliani is riding high. He has consistently led his Republican opponents in the national polls for weeks, and the polls also suggest he would do well in the general election. On the hustings, he projects an aura of authority, competence, and honesty, and his deft and repeated attacks on Hillary Clinton suggest he would be a formidable Republican nominee for president.

The big question hanging over the Giuliani candidacy has been whether he can garner enough support from religious conservatives to go the distance. This month’s surprising endorsement from televangelist Pat Robertson has raised hopes in the Giuliani camp that he might attract enough social conservatives to his cause to win the nomination.

Indeed, Giuliani’s performance has led a number of influential social conservatives to signal that they could live with a Giuliani candidacy. Many of these elites admire Giuliani’s commitment to the war on terror and his unabashed patriotism. And while they do not expect the world of him on social issues, they think he would appoint strict constructionist judges, in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who would chip away at Roe v. Wade. They also expect that a Giuliani administration would grant social conservatives access to the halls of power in Washington, something they could never get in a Democratic administration.

For instance, Jody Bottum, editor of First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, the preeminent organ of social conservative thought in the United States, thinks Giuliani has at least two things running in his favor.

According to Bottum,

If he campaigns wisely, picks a socially conservative running mate, and talks about how his court appointments would interpret the law strictly, he is capable of doing reasonably well with religious conservatives.

Moreover, even though many social conservatives would be reluctant to support Giuliani because of his social stands, Bottum thinks that in the end “Giuliani is such a brilliant negative campaigner that many of them might come out to vote against Hillary,” and end up casting a vote for him.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, has struck a similar note, telling National Review that the support of social conservatives is within Giuliani’s reach. “It would require a sell job that goes beyond anything he’s done up until now,” he says. “It probably would mean very specific assurances on a handful of key things that people that would want to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt. But I think it can be done.”

Economic conservatives have gone further. Scott Reed, Bob Dole’s campaign manager in 1996, contends that it’s “all about [Rudy] being a tough guy who won’t take c**p from anyone.” “Social conservatives,” Reed continues, “have embraced this and have overlooked the traditional issues of life, marriage, and the Second Amendment for the guy.” Likewise, Robert Tracinski, a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics, argues that social conservatives are now “willing to accept that their political preferences are — and should be — driven primarily by the secular concerns of war and taxes.” In other words, Reed and Tracinski seem to believe that social conservatives are finally following the advice of the ACLU and privatizing their religious beliefs.

Such views abound partly because Rudy is currently leading all candidates in national polls of Republican voters by a considerable margin. Yet we should not read too much into these surveys. As a recent Gallup survey cautions, although Republicans “generally perceive [Rudy] to be liberal or moderate on moral values issues,” most are also “unaware of Giuliani’s positions on abortion and gay rights.” Given such unfamiliarity, we should not be surprised to find that greater intimacy with Rudy and his positions depresses Republican enthusiasm. In New Hampshire and Iowa, the states in which voters have enjoyed the most exposure to the candidates, Giuliani trails far behind Mitt Romney. In fact, Rudy might finish third in both states.

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.

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