Evangelical Christian voters formed the core of President Bush's support in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. But according to a new CBS News poll, the next Republican nominee may have a little more work ahead of him if he wants to count on this influential bloc turning out to the polls in his favor.
The survey, conducted from Oct. 12-16, found that while evangelical voters remain overwhelmingly conservative, they are largely unsatisfied with the current crop of Republican candidates, who they feel are not discussing their priorities - not gay marriage and abortion, with which evangelical voters are often identified, but issues that are also a top priority for voters overall, including the war in Iraq and health care.
Among white evangelical registered voters, 23 percent want to hear presidential candidates discuss health care, while 20 percent want them to talk about the war in Iraq. Both figures are only slightly lower than the overall population of registered voters. Abortion and same-sex marriage were at the bottom of the list for both groups.
In what could be an ominous signal for the Republicans running for president, white evangelicals - whose political views are typically more conservative than those of black evangelicals - feel that Democrats, not Republicans, are paying more attention to their top issues. Twenty-four percent said Democrats are talking about their top issue, compared to only 10 percent who said the same about Republicans. But Democrats should not get too excited about this figure - 35 percent of white evangelicals said neither party is addressing their top concern.
Given those results, it is not surprising that white evangelicals are split on whether the GOP field is satisfactory, with 51 percent saying they wish there were more choices, while 44 percent said they were satisfied with their options.
Still, these voters are not reluctant to take sides - only 3 percent of them said they were undecided when asked who, among the Republicans running, they would like to see nominated. Fred Thompson, who officially entered the race in September, led the way with 29 percent support. He was trailed closely by Rudy Giuliani at 26 percent. John McCain came in third at 15 percent. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were effectively tied for fourth place, at 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
These numbers did not vary significantly from the, with two exceptions: Thompson ran better among evangelical voters by 8 percent, while Romney, whose Mormon faith is controversial with some born-again Christians, saw his support among evangelicals lag behind that of all Republican primary voters by 5 percent.
Evangelicals appear conflicted when it comes to Giuliani, who leads in national polls and is gaining strength in the key early primary state of New Hampshire. Giuliani supports abortion rights and, during his tenure as New York City mayor, supported expanding the rights of gays and lesbians - positions evangelical voters overwhelmingly oppose. Only 29 percent of white evangelical voters said they could vote for a candidate that disagrees with them on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Yet, when asked about Giuliani specifically, these same voters seem more flexible. Sixty-one percent of white evangelicals said they would at least consider voting for Giuliani if he were the Republican nominee in 2008, with 29 percent saying they would "definitely" vote for him. Only 17 percent said there was no way they would vote for Giuliani, while 22 percent said it was too early to judge. And 61 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote for a candidate with less conservative views than them in the general election if they believed that candidate would win.
But the biggest problem facing Giuliani or any other potential Republican nominee may be one of enthusiasm. In Mr. Bush's 2004 campaign, his organization focused on bringing evangelical voters to the polls. For a self-identified born-again Christian like Mr. Bush, this may have been a relatively easy sell. However, the top-tier Republican candidates are not viewed as particularly religious by white evangelicals, a problem Bush did not face.
No more than 35 percent of white evangelicals believe that either Giuliani, Romney, McCain or Thompson have strong religious beliefs. Giuliani and Thompson scored particularly low on this question - only 15 percent believe that Giuliani is strongly religious, compared to 13 percent for Thompson. Those numbers are a bad sign for the GOP field, especially when one considers that 84 percent of white evangelicals consider it at least somewhat important that the candidate they vote for shares their religious beliefs, with 39 percent saying it was "very important."
The one thing the eventual Republican nominee will clearly have working in his favor, at least when it comes to getting evangelical voters to the polls, is party identification: 57 percent of white evangelicals identify as Republican, while 58 percent define themselves as conservative.
This poll was conducted among a random sample of 1,282 adults nationwide, interviewed by telephone October 12-16, 2007. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. 312 interviews were conducted with white evangelicals, and 283 with white evangelicals who are registered to vote. The margin of error for those subgroups is plus or minus six percentage points.