The standard storyline about religion and the nomination process has been the failure of evangelicals to agree on a single preferred Republican candidate. But the choice of Democratic nominee has more momentous implications. If Clinton is the nominee, evangelicals will swarm to McCain (who, contrary to popular belief, has significant support among evangelicals– much more than among staunch, nonevangelical conservatives). Obama, by contrast, could win a sizeable slice of the evangelical vote.
Obama’s appeal is generational. Since roughly the turn of the new century, there has been widening generational divide between the politics of younger evangelicals and that of their elders. The split first surfaced publicly on environmental issues. Those who signed the 2006 evangelical statement on global warming were mostly younger evangelicals (like Rick Warren), while those who opposed it hailed from the old generation (James Dobson). Obama’s youth and his message of post-partisan hope deeply appeal to many young evangelicals, and younger evangelicals are less committed than gray-haired evangelicals to the Republican party. Two years ago, 55% of younger evangelicals called themselves Republicans, according to a recent Pew study. Today, the number is 40%.
On culture wars issues, younger evangelicals’ views are closer to McCain than Obama. But based on my own admittedly unscientific sample– the evangelical law and college students I meet– many young evangelicals are turned off by the way the fights on these issues have been waged. Especially the battles to limit gay rights, which many perceive as often having been mean-spirited.
On Iraq, especially if the success of the surge continues, Obama’s insistent opposition may hurt him with many evangelicals. But here too the effect will be weaker with the younger generation. Not only are they less gung-ho about the war, but many are more concerned about the social issues Obama has promoted (even if many of these, like systemic healthcare reform, can’t realistically be achieved anytime soon, as Bill pointed out in this article in the Weekly Standard several weeks ago.)
In many respects, Clinton would seem at least as attractive a candidate for evangelicals as Obama. By all accounts, she is a person of serious faith; she is the Democratic candidate most likely to achieve real progress in addressing poverty (as John DiIulio argued in the magazine First Things in the fall; here); and her stance toward the Iraq War is much more mainstream. But she is inextricably identified with the battles of the past– the Vietnam era, the legacy of the sixties, the poisonous politics of the Clinton and Bush administrations.
McCain can’t count on the 78% of the white evangelical vote that Bush won in 2004 if Clinton emerges as the Democratic nominee. But he might come close. If Obama is the nominee, on the other hand, McCain will still win a majority of evangelical votes, but evangelicals may no longer look like a subsidiary of the Republican party.