Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two States

What sells to Iowa evangelicals may not necessarily sell to South Carolina's.

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Arkansas Governor Huckabee’s appeal can’t be strictly religious. Or at least it isn’t limited to it.

Iowa is five percent Baptist. South Carolina, by comparison, is 45 percent Baptist.

And yet in Iowa, Huckabee’s taking off — 31 percent in the Quad City Times poll, 36 percent in the Hotline/FD poll, 39-percent in Rasmussen, and 30 percent in the Strategic Vision poll. In all of those polls, his closest competitor Mitt Romney is stuck in the mid-20s.

In South Carolina, Huckabee has jumped, but finds himself in a much tighter race — up six in Insider Advantage, up 7 in Rasmussen, up 3 in Mason-Dixon, up 11 in Survey USA, up 7 in CNN. He tops out at 30-percent in Survey USA’s poll, and it’s getting 20 to 25 percent of that field in the other polls. And the most recent Rasmussen poll released this week puts him tied with Romney.

(It’s worth noting that two of his rivals in South Carolina, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, have more or less written off hopes of winning Iowa.) Still, Giuliani and McCain don’t seem to be the types to snatch the religious right vote away from Huckabee.

So why is Huckabee running away with a state that, at first glance, should be a tougher sell? And why is he not exploding ahead of the pack in the Palmetto State as he is elsewhere?

Recent history suggests that Iowa Republicans have a history of falling hard for the candidate who wears his religion on his sleeve the most. Pat Robertson’s victory in the 1988 Iowa Straw poll was seen a key moment in the rise of the religious right, and that year Robertson finished six percent ahead of sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush. Pat Buchanan came within three percent of Bob Dole in 1996 and Alan Keyes — a fringe candidate everywhere else, symbolized by his willingness to jump into a mosh pit to the music of Rage Against the Machine on Michael Moore’s television show — managed third place in 2000 with a respectable 14-percent (John McCain skipped the caucuses that year).

The state GOP puts evangelicals and social conservatives at between 50 and 60 percent Iowa caucus voters.

David Brody of CBN describes a further rally-around-the-flag effect among these voters, as Iowan evangelicals instinctively dig in to support an openly Christian figure when they’re attacked, as Huckabee has been in recent weeks.

“All these stories attacking Huckabee may hurt him in New Hampshire and in other states across the country,” Brody concludes.

But in Iowa, among evangelicals, it’s a different mind set. These stories can actually have the reverse effect with Evangelicals saying, ‘stay strong Mike. Everybody is coming against you because you wear your faith on your sleeve.’ This is usually the mentality when ‘one of their own’ is attacked. Unless he’s done something so reprehensible, it’s going to take something pretty big to stop Huckabee’s momentum in Iowa with Evangelical Christians.

By comparison, in South Carolina, the religious conservative community is active and vocal, but less unified. As the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life describes the fault lines:

The Christian conservative movement has been a part of South Carolina’s political culture since the 1960s. It is comprised of three main branches within the state: the Bob Jones University loyalists, the Christian Coalition conservatives and the Southern Baptists. All three groups are conservative and Christian, but they do not always back the same candidates or agree on every issue. The BJU contingent assimilated into the state GOP in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to wield power in South Carolina. The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority never gained as strong a foothold in South Carolina as in other Southern states, and by 2002 the coalition had essentially fallen apart. Southern Baptist clergy have become increasingly politically active in South Carolina but do not have an extensive central organization.

A Greenville Republican who attended Bob Jones University — and asked not to be identified, as she had some critical comments about the school — attributed a certain wariness among South Carolina religious conservatives:

I believe that [they] have wisened up and become more sophisticated as a result of all the past controversies in the state, especially with regards to the mixing of politics and religion — like when George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones when the school still had in place it’s ridiculous “inter-racial dating ban.” There was also the vicious rumor mill about Senator McCain — slams against his wife and children. Incidents like these attract masses of negative press from the national media… I think Republicans there are tired of being portrayed in the national media as bigoted, Confederate-flag flying bumpkins who’ll vote for anyone with a Bible in his hand.

Recall that when the Republican candidates were asked about the confederate flag at a South Carolina debate earlier this year, the audience booed the question, suggesting a certain exhaustion with the topic.

In the upstate — where Bob Jones University has such a strong presence and many graduates settle down after college — I think the level of theology education is extremely high,” this Bob Jones University attendee said. “If Huckabee went one-on-one with a BJU graduate in a theology debate, my money would be on the BJU grad. In other words, it’s going to take more than a sweet-talking Southern Baptist preacher to turn heads in the upstate of South Carolina. People there will not blindly follow him because he wears the Cross on his sleeve.

Compared to Iowa, South Carolina’s Republican voters look establishment: their winner has always gone on to be the nominee. And faith-on-their sleeve candidates tend to be afterthoughts. Buchanan finished 16 percentage points behind Bob Dole in 1996, and Robertson finished 30 percentage points behind George H.W. Bush in 1988. In the last competitive GOP primary, Alan Keyes again finished third, but with only five percent and it is worth noting that in the interim Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Orrin Hatch had withdrawn.

Perhaps more important than any doctrinal differences, are the contrasting cultural currents that lead the states’ evangelicals in different directions.

The first, and perhaps most prominent, is national security. Iowa has been characterized as pacifist or isolationist.

As Peter Beinart noted, the “peace churches” — Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren — have thrived in the Hawkeye state. The state has no major military bases and the defense industry has no presence. At it extends, at least partially, to local GOP lawmakers; Republican Senator Chuck Grassley voted against the 1991 Iraq War (and for the 2002 authorization of force); Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, who supported the first Gulf War, voted “no” in 2002.

The war in Iraq has never been popular here, and one December poll indicated that 51 percent of Republicans supported a full withdrawal of troops from Iraq in six months. An October poll put it at 54 percent.

By comparison, South Carolina brims with military institutions and traditions. The state is the home of the Citadel, Charleston Air Force Base, U.S. Army Fort Jackson in Columbia, the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, the McEntire Air National Guard Station, Shaw Air Force Base, and Naval Weapons Station Charleston. Altogether the state is home to about 38,000 active duty and about 26,000 Reserve and National Guard members. This isn’t counting the state’s numerous military retirees.

Iowa has always had a populist streak. Dick Gephardt won in 1988, trashing Japanese imports, and promising protectionist trade bills, and trashing Wall Street and “opinion centers” for forgetting the working class. His themes were the role model for John Edwards in 2004, who rode that to a surprising second-place finish. (We’ll see how this year’s version of Edwards, the most explicitly populist campaign in recent memory, will perform. It is worth noting that this year’s edition of Edwards is running closer in Iowa than anywhere else, if the polls are accurate.) While populism hasn’t been as noisy a theme on the Republican side, in 1988, Bob Dole’s rise from humble beginnings and small-town Midwestern roots probably helped contrast him with the east coast money guys, George H.W. Bush and Pete DuPont. Steve Forbes never found the state to be quite as welcoming on caucus night as some early buzz indicated in 1996 and 2000.

By contrast, populism has not played a dominant theme in a South Carolina Republican presidential primary in recent memory. If there has been any clear-cut economic theme in South Carolina politics, it has been state’s steady support for low taxes.

Finally, the political culture of each state appears diametrically opposed on the issue of negative campaigning. Culturally, Huckabee seems like a good fit with Iowa natives — smiling, soft-spoken, gentle in tone, and good-humored. Roxanne Conlin, an unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial nominee, told Time magazine in 1988, “Being rude and killing someone are about on par here.” The state was the site of the infamous “murder-suicide” between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean in 2004, where Democrats reacted to Gephardt’s attacks on Dean by rejecting both of them.

South Carolina, on the other hand, came through the 2000 Republican primary without much of a backlash to George W. Bush.

This is not to say Huckabee cannot do well among South Carolina evangelicals; in the numbers of Rasmussen’s latest poll, the former Arkansas governor leads the evangelical vote with 42-percent, with Thompson and Romney way behind at 14 and 12 percent, respectively. But it is worth remembering that there is no cookie-cutter model for an evangelical Republican primary voter or caucusgoer, and that what flourishes in an Iowa cornfield won’t necessarily grow in the swamps of the South Carolina Low Country.

–Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on National Review Online.

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