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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

February 28, 2012 at 6:30 AM

Rick Santorum embraces religious politics and seeks to win over evangelicals to seize Washington caucuses

Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum

Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum (Photo courtesy of patrobertson.com and ricksantorum.com)

In the Republican caucuses this coming Saturday, Rick Santorum hopes to be the Pat Robertson of 2012.

In 1988, Robertson was a controversial Christian TV talk show host and leader of the Religious Right — a growing collection of politically active evangelicals and fundamentalists who were bringing their religious beliefs into the political arena. The movement emerged in the 1970s and took off in the 1980s as a response to the tectonic cultural changes of the civil rights movement, sexual revolution, government deception, legalization of abortion, and removal of mandated prayer from public schools.

Robertson ran for president in 1988, determined to lead Christian conservatives to the political promised land. He’d never held office, so he was the longest of longshots.  But he energized evangelicals in Iowa, and he finished second in the state’s caucuses on February 8, behind Senator Bob Dole and ahead of vice-president George H. W. Bush.

Bush bounced back to win New Hampshire, and after a few weeks of competition, Bush took control of the Republican nomination. On March 1, Robertson won the caucuses in Alaska, but from that point forward Bush captured every remaining state or territory in the Republican contest — 36 states.

All except one, that is. On March 8, Robertson won the Washington caucuses.

Pat Robertson

Successes by Pat Robertson in 1988 Republican primary (University of Virginia Center for Politics)

It was an outcome shrouded in controversy. Chris Vance, then Dole’s campaign manager in Washington and later the state Republican Party chair, said there was considerable confusion among the party’s caucus leaders about vote counting. In his view, “We’ll never actually know who won the caucuses that year.”

Nonetheless, Vance credited Robertson with energizing religious conservatives to attend the caucuses. “They had buses go by churches and pick up people, and then they’d unload at the caucus sites and people would come flowing out. It was amazing. These folks walked in, picked Robertson in the straw poll, and they were done.”

Vance said Robertson and Ellen Craswell, a Republican state senator in the 1970-80s and 1996 gubernatorial candidate, excited Christian conservatives in Washington unlike anyone since. The state party’s leadership was “so embarrassed” by Robertson’s win, Vance said, that they pushed the state legislature the following year to adopt a primary system of choosing presidential candidates.

In every year since, Republicans have employed both a caucus and a primary to express their presidential preference — splitting the party’s delegates evenly between the two forums. This combination allows activists to have their say in the small-turnout caucuses and the larger Republican electorate to weigh in with the primary.

However, this year the state legislature cancelled the primary for financial reasons. As a result, for the first time since 1988 the Republicans will hold only a caucus. This Saturday, power lies in the hands of a small, highly motivated collection of conservative voters.

Rick Santorum hopes these are religiously conservative voters.

Santorum is running a presidential campaign that is as closely akin to Robertson’s crusade as anything we’ve seen in the past three decades. I know because I have studied the rise of religious politics in presidential campaigns, and wrote about it with a colleague in The God strategy: How religion became a political weapon in America, published in 2008 and updated in 2010.

Many presidential candidates have made religious faith a central part of their campaign, but none have had the kind of success Santorum is having this year. He won Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri — four of the nine contests so far.

Santorum signage

Rick Santorum's 2012 campaign materials. He often references these three topics in his stump speeches. (Photo by David Domke/UW Election Eye)

Santorum made Time magazine’s list of the nation’s 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America in 2005 — the only Catholic on the list — and his 2012 campaign slogan is “Faith, Family, Freedom.” For years he has been known as a culture warrior, and on the campaign trail he is unabashed about the centrality of his religious faith in the way he would govern, often invoking the nation’s Founders as the basis for his vision.

In recent weeks he has blasted the Obama administration’s support for contraceptive coverage in health care plans, claiming that it abridges the religious conscience of many Americans.

He campaigned in our state the same day that Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law the same-sex marriage bill.

In an ABC News interview on Sunday, Santorum said that the only Catholic to be elected president, John F. Kennedy, engaged in political blasphemy when he famously committed in the 1960 campaign to an “absolute” separation of church and state.

Santorum minced no words: “That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.”

Last week Santorum struggled in a nationally televised debate. In the aftermath, he has ramped up, not backed down in his religious politics in his campaigning in Michigan, which votes along with Arizona in primaries today.

Santorum has gone all in with religious politics. Now he hopes his views compel Washingtonians who share them to go all in for him this Saturday.

0 Comments | Topics: Bob Dole, Caucuses, Evangelicals

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