When I was on Fox & Friends Sunday morning to analyze the previous night’s debate, host Alisyn Camerota was surprised when I said that I saw evangelicals moving in force to Newt Gingrich. If I’m correct, their support could win him the nomination.
About 37% of those who will participate in the Iowa caucus on January 3 will be evangelical and 45% consider themselves to be very socially conservative. In 2008, 60% of voters in Iowa and South Carolina and 44% of all primary voters were evangelicals. It is their opinion that will matter most in determining the right-of-Romney candidate, and the rise of Gingrich is happening with their permission. In a remark that apparently no one noticed during the November 9 debate, Romney mentioned he’s only gone to one church and has only had one wife. He was obviously drawing a contrast with Gingrich.
It is hard to get a good read on Iowa because of the contradictory poll results, but Gingrich is definitely within reach of the top spot, if he doesn’t have it. The latest Rasmussen poll has Gingrich with a wide lead in Iowa at 32%, followed by Romney with 19% and Cain with 13%. Two polls show Cain in the lead, closely followed by Ron Paul. Another has a four-way tie. The polls out of South Carolina, where Gingrich has the largest operation, also vary widely. Herman Cain has the lead in an average of the polls, but another has Romney with a slight lead over Cain and another has Gingrich in second place behind Cain.
Pundits have long doubted Gingrich’s appeal to evangelicals because of his personal history and the attractiveness of other candidates. Cain was an associate minister, sounds like a preacher, and even recorded a gospel album. Bachmann is an evangelical herself. Santorum is the warrior fighting on behalf of family values. Perry held a “Day of Prayer and Fasting” for America as governor of Texas shortly before he declared his candidacy.
There are three reasons why evangelicals have warmed up to Gingrich and are likely to embrace him as the alternative to Romney.
First, he is the only candidate who has systematically, passionately, and substantively taken up every issue that is dear to evangelicals. He has promised to immediately issue executive orders ending taxpayer funding for overseas abortions. He vowed to restore the protections for health care workers who choose not to perform abortions. Another would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The other candidates make general statements about social issues but don’t offer a plan of action.
He provocatively says in his book Rediscovering God In America that “[t]here is no attack on American life more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left’s relentless effort to drive God out of America’s public square.” He coined the phrase “secular-socialist machine” and has put out a plan to rein in activist judges.
He’s the only candidate that talks about the growing persecution of Christians in the Islamic world, saying the Arab Spring is becoming an “Anti-Christian Spring.” He shows himself to be in-tune with the latest developments outraging evangelicals, such as the complaint against the private Catholic University of America for having crosses in Islamic prayer rooms and no club exclusively for Muslim students.
The second reason is the “born-again” experience and how that makes it easy for evangelicals to look past his marital history. The experience is based in confessing personal failings and discovering a life-changing relationship with God. Most evangelicals relate more to someone who has fallen and redeemed himself than to someone who grew up in faith and has never known much else. His recent explanation would play very well in a church:
I do believe in a forgiving God. And I think most people, deep down in their hearts, hope there’s a forgiving God. Somebody once said that when we were young, we seek justice, but as we get older, we seek mercy.
If Gingrich opens up about his personal experience and how it brought him to God, he’ll rally the evangelical vote behind him. He started to do this on Hannity this week.
Last, the economy is the number one issue for evangelicals like everyone else. They want a candidate from their ranks, but substance plays a huge role in their decision. They want a commander-in-chief, but one who values the importance of faith in leadership.
During the October 18 debate, Gingrich said, “How can you have judgment if you have no faith? How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”
Those are the types of words evangelicals love to hear, but they must come from the mouth of someone they feel is a credible contender for the office of the presidency and has an actionable plan based on their issues.
It is the evangelical vote that will decide who stands next to Romney when the campaign becomes a two-man race. And right now, it looks like Gingrich is their candidate.