Newt Gingrich Picks Up the Evangelical Vote

South Carolina’s GOP primary results surprised me. Newt Gingrich convincingly won a primary in which 65% of voters described themselves as “born-again or evangelical Christians.” The question is: How can an admitted adulterer and two-time divorced Catholic prevail in the Bible Belt?

I grew up in Georgia near the South Carolina border. I know firsthand how important religion and church-going are in that corner of the country. Each candidate in last Saturday’s primary provided a distinct caricature for Christian voters. The winner, Gingrich, is a Catholic and poor spokesman for the holy institution of marriage. The second-place finisher, Romney, is a non-Christian (in the minds of many) but otherwise a scandal-free family man. Santorum, the third-place finisher, is a Protestant with a seemingly pristine record of social conservatism. Lastly, Ron Paul is a Christian, but one that spends more time defending the Constitution than the Bible.

I assumed that religion and moral character would play a deciding factor in this year’s primary. In 2008, 43% of voters said shared values were the most important candidate quality. In 2012, religion was important but, ultimately, jobs trumped social issues. Exit poll data shows that 60% of voters said it was important that their candidate share their religious beliefs, but only 18% said their candidate needed to have “strong moral character.” Unemployment is high in South Carolina and the economy was far and away the most important issue for the majority of voters (63% vs. 40% in 2008). The votes speak for themselves. 

 Am I the only one surprised by social conservatives’ support for Gingrich? A gathering of evangelical leaders voted to endorse Santorum ahead of the primary, but the flock didn’t follow. I don’t know whether to be encouraged by what seems to be individualistic and secular voting, or to claim hypocrisy. Shouldn’t Christians vote for a candidate of strong moral character? Instead they voted for Gingrich, despite fresh allegations by an ex-wife that he asked her for an open marriage.

I find all the Republican candidates flawed in their own special ways and couldn’t care less who wins. I’m following the primaries, mainly to listen to the voice of my fellow citizens. The evangelical voice in South Carolina seemed to indicate that being monogamously-challenged is not a major obstacle to holding our highest office. This, of course, is in contrast to the stance the Republican Congress took during the Clinton impeachment process.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by voters disagreeing with congressional thinking at a time when their approval rating is at an all-time low.

Moving forward, Gingrich is edging closer to Romney in national polls. In Florida — where only 39% of voters in the 2008 primary described themselves as Christians — the latest polls show Gingrich over Romney. If Gingrich is seen as the candidate most likely to create jobs and is the favorite of socially conservative voters, is his nomination ticket all but punched?

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