The Religious Right in 2008
Bob Altemeyer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Mar 30, 2007 at 05:48:47 PM EST
We are honored to have Professor Bob Altemeyer, author of the new book, The Authoritarians, join us as a guest front pager. (For more on his book, see my post above.)  Altemeyer's post below, started out as a comment during a discussion of his book on Daily Kos.  The "High RWAs" mentioned in the piece, he notes, are authoritarian followers, people who score highly on a personality test called the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale. -- fc

      What role will authoritarianism play in deciding who's going to run for president for the Republicans in 2008? Since this is being written sixteen months before the GOP convention, most of my guesses will probably turn out to be wrong. Things happen fast in politics. But here's how it looks to me in March 2007.

      First of all, the Republicans must realize that the tide has definitely turned against them.  The Pew Research Poll released on March 23 shows that, while the Democrats and Republicans were tied in popular support just five years ago, each finding favor with 43% of the population, the Democrats have pulled away and now hold a 50%-35% lead. The Grand Old Party probably hasn't lost many of its traditional supporters, but it has lost a lot of the Independents who recently favored it-as it discovered last November. Still, the overall shift can seduce one. Independents are not as likely to vote as committed party members are, unless they are good and riled, and the Republicans have the most committed members of all in the Religious Right.

      What would you do if you were a stalwart Republican? You'd pray for a candidate who will win back the Independents and the moderates. And Rudy Giuliani appears, at the moment at least, able to do just that.

      First, he's your natural choice because he draws more support among Republicans than anybody else. In the Rasmussen poll released March 20, he had the support of 33% of 599 respondents who said they were likely to vote in a Republican primary. McCain (15%), Gingrich (13%), and Romney (10%) trailed way behind. (Note the appreciable number of undecideds.)  Giuliani does better among "somewhat conservative" Republicans than he does among "very conservative" ones. The latter, who would mainly be high RWAs, prefer Gingrich over Giuliani-but only by a statistically insignificant margin.  To the rank and file in the Religious Right, Giuliani is the guy who acted so courageously on 9/11. He's not a thrice-married candidate who is "soft" on abortion, gays, and guns.

      Second, Giuliani beats all the Democratic front-runners in the Rasmussen poll too, by six to eight percentage points. He obviously has broad appeal among Independents and moderates.  

      One place he does not find much favor, however, is among the leaders of the Religious Right. So what are they going to do?

Plan A  

      Those leaders, I think, clearly prefer Gingrich but recognize his baggage. I suspect James Dobson of Focus on the Family recently helped Gingrich reveal his own extramarital affair during the Clinton impeachment to get it out in the open now, so it could be neutralized for the rank and file before 2008.  Jerry Falwell in turn almost immediately pronounced Gingrich repentant, saying he (Falwell) was a good judge of whether someone was genuinely seeking forgiveness, and he was sure Gingrich was. This time. Falwell even invited Gingrich to speak at the commencement exercises at  Liberty University in May. If Jerry Falwell says he and Jesus have forgiven Newt, the thinking goes, their followers will surely follow.

      I think this will go down among the high RWAs quite easily, but not with the rest of the country. Gingrich, after all, has a lot more going against him than just this latest affair, and according to an AP-Ipsos poll released on March 11, the American voter cares more about character issues right now than policy matters. That may be why the latest Rasmussen poll found that Gingrich led the field when it came to, "Whom would you definitely vote against?" 50% said Newt, versus the 20% who said they would definitely vote for him.

      Put yourself in James Dobson's, Jerry Falwell's, Pat Robertson's, and Richard Land's, shoes right now. (That's eight shoes, so you'll need help.) You lead the most potent, sizeable,  zealous, manipulable voter bloc in the country, which you have cultivated with great care. And the best you can come up with as a candidate is Newt Gingrich! (George W. Bush, among his many failures, did not groom a successor. But how many aspiring dictators do?) Still, if your troops fight like crazy in the primaries- which you can certainly get them to do--you might be able to make Gingrich the GOP nominee. That would make the Democrats very happy, I suspect. You would have finished off the job of finishing off the Republican party-for a while at least.

Plan B

      So Plan A's probably a bummer. What are your alternatives? Right now, it's to get the best deal you can get for delivering your voters to Giuliani. Giuliani would then stand an excellent chance of being the next president.  A big presidential victory in 2008 could give the GOP control of the Congress again. Surely that is better for your interests than Plan A, which could isolate your movement, expose it to ridicule, and destroy all you've worked for.

      But supporting Giuliani sticks in the craw of some leaders of the Religious Right. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said on March 6 that many Christian conservatives have deep doubts about Giuliani's character because of the way he publicly humiliated his second wife and children during his divorce. While I doubt many Christian conservatives know much about Giuliani, as I said above, someone like Richard Land can fix that in a flash.

      On the other hand, Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana showed how to finesse the "social issues card" when he endorsed Giuliani on March 12, despite big differences between the two men on abortion, homosexuals, and so on. "Giuliani has shown unwavering leadership and sound judgment that we so clearly need in this time of war and terrorist attacks," he said. (Doesn't the quote remind you of some of the items on the RWA scale?) Giuliani's promise to appoint only judges who will strictly interpret the Constitution convinced Vitter, he said, that Giuliani is "not running for president to advance any liberal agenda."

      So get back into those guys' shoes again. Could you, as a leader of the Religious Right, hold your nose and deliver the vote for Giuliani? Isn't this risky? Won't the Democrats do everything they can during September and October, 2008, to disenchant your followers about the former mayor of New York City? They're going to tell your people that you're supporting a pro-choice candidate. They're going to point out how accepting Giuliani is of homosexuality. And they're going to put Giuliani's character on display on TV screens across the country for everyone to see. Aren't you chancing losing your followers if you support Giuliani, no matter what deal you can get in return?

      No, not in my opinion. High RWAs will accept almost anything, almost anybody, if the people they look to for guidance tell them to. We can write Falwell's, Dobson's, etcetera's endorsement script right now, can't we? "My friends, I have talked with Rudy Giuliani face to face about these things that his enemies are saying he believes in, and I can tell you those stories simply are not true. The old Rudy Giuliani is not the man running for president of our wonderful country now. We have to remember that through Jesus's grace any of us can change, and this man is on the path to the Light. I looked him right in the eye and I asked him, `Do you support abortion? Do you support killing innocent children before they are born?' and he said, `Of course not. I favor life, like almost everybody does.'... So the next time you hear someone saying something bad about this man, just don't listen. Just don't listen. Click the mute button and look away. They're only saying it to confuse you."

      Will as many high RWAs work for Plan B as they would for (say) Newt Gingrich? No. But their leaders have an ace up their sleeves that they will surely play to win the pot. If you can't get the rank-and-file worked up because of their admiration of Giuliani, you can sure as hell scare them out of their wits about the Democratic candidate. The fear card can trump everything else in the game for authoritarian followers' minds. And how hard do you think it will be to get high RWAs deathly afraid a first woman, or first African American, liberal president-the two most likely Democratic candidates right now?

Plan C

      Would the leaders of the Religious Right form their own political party if they could not negotiate a sweet enough deal with the rest of the GOP? They might threaten to do so, but I doubt they would. They must know that forming a third party in the United States is the equivalent of stomping off into Sinai's wilderness without a paddle. The leaders may stress to their followers that one must Never Compromise on matters of principle, but what they themselves really want is power, and they will make whatever accommodation they have to in order to get as much power as they can. And Giuliani in turn must know he can't win without them. So the Let's Make A Deal Shoppe should be wide open.

      So place your bets. Right now, I'd say the odds strongly favor Plan B.

Update:  One comment about this piece appeared on the Daily Kos site more than any other, namely that when the American public met the "real Rudy Giuliani," he would be no threat to the Democrats. But most post-ers seemed to accept the point that the rank-and-file of the Religious Right would work hard for whomever their leaders chose, as the research in my book strongly suggests. There was disagreement over whether the leaders of the Religious Right would "sell out" in return for concessions from Giuliani.

      Giuliani's support among Republicans rose a bit (33% to 35% ) in the latest Rasmussen Poll. Relatively few people say they definitely would not vote for him. He is one of the few candidates (at this point in time) who draws more favorable than unfavorable reaction (a remarkable 66% to 29%).

      On the other hand, the Harris Interactive Poll released on March 27 found 50% of its sample said they would not vote for the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, including 39% who said they "definitely would not vote for her." The latest Rasmussen Poll found 46% "definitely would not vote" for her. But when push comes to shove, Giuliani only leads Clinton 49% to 41% in a head-to-head match-up in the Rasmussen Poll. Giuliani's lead is entirely due to greater support from the Independents. Democrats now outnumber Republicans.

      But they may not outwork them, given the dedication of the Religious Right.

For a refreshing take on the role of the religious right in the upcoming election season.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Mar 30, 2007 at 09:06:56 PM EST

Plan B seems too cynical to me. The implication is that the leadership doesn't care about ideology at all; that they're only interested in power for the sake of having power? And that the followers will blindly go along with that? And they won't care when Guiliani appoints pro-choice justices and signs gay-friendly legislation after he gets elected?

Unless one of the second-tier Republican candidates catches up really fast, I think we're going to get the reverse of the 1996 election. (Where the Left didn't see any significant difference between Bush and Gore, and cast protest votes for Nader instead.)

So somebody like Pat Buchanan is going to say, "The Republican party has sold its soul and now you have a choice between two New York Liberals in the general election. So you might as well support me in my Third Party run. Sure, Hillary will win, but Giuliani would be almost as bad. And if Giuliani loses, then the Republican party will start paying attention to the base again." If that happens, then the rest of the RR needs to either follow or get left behind.

by mazement on Mon Apr 02, 2007 at 03:44:14 PM EST

There are also those of us who (if asked by Rasmussen) would say the following:
--I will not vote for a Democratic ticket with Sen. Clinton on it in either position.
--I will not vote for a Republican ticket with Gov. Romney or Rep. Gingrich on it in either position.
--I might vote for a Republican ticket with Mayor Giuliani or Sen. McCain IF and only IF the Democratic ticket does not have Sen. Clinton and IF and only IF the other person on the Republican ticket is not Gov. Romney or Rep. Gingrich.

I'm hoping for an Obama-Richardson ticket. I could vote FOR them!

by RevRuthUCC on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 10:50:15 PM EST

First, my thanks to Frederick Clarkson for inviting me to your very interesting web-site. A number of your regular visitors have come over to my book's site, and I certainly appreciate that. (Why the royalties alone...!)

I would not say that the leadership of the Religious Right does not care about ideology at all. I suspect some of them care, maybe even a lot. But if these people are like the "Double Highs" I've studied in my research, they will definitely care about having power more. This can be rationalized in various ways, of course. But they have felt the throb of influencing government and shaping a nation over the past dozen years, and that can become quite addictive. I don't think they're ready to give it up.

Would they support Giuliani IF he maintained his front-runner status, even though he supports Roe vs. Wade and homosexual rights, was divorced twice, and so on? I think they would if they got a good enough deal in return. They can threaten to form a third party, but that would likely do their cause significant long-run damage. Sometimes backers of a party sense they are going to lose the next election no matter what, and at that point it becomes a fight within the party to see who will control it after the defeat. If the Religious Right goes the third-party route, they're out of that game and in the wilderness. Where of course they could be courted later, because they have the most active and loyal base of supporters. But why not be courted now, and have some chance of continued influence?

Do I think the followers would work for Giuliani if the Religious Right leadership made a deal with him? Yes, according to the research. Not as universally and strongly as they did for GWB, of course. But they would make a big effort--especially if the Democrats nominate a fearsome (to them) candidate.

As my wife points out, however, I have been wrong about many things almost every day since I got married. And to illustrate how all of this may be just an "academic" discussion, this week's Rasmussen Poll shows (for the first time) a real slippage in support for Giuliani--as many predicted would happen once the public began to perceive the man in other contexts than 9/11.

So if it ain't gonna be "America's Mayor" carrying the GOP standard in 2008, who's it going to be?

P.S. If you want to see some other things I might turn out to be wrong about, look at the Question and Answer session John Dean and I did last week about Tom DeLay's book, "No Retreat, No Surrender" on the Findlaw site:

DeLay, the former House Majority Leader,  appears to be a good example of a Double High, and the effect (and non-effect) of his finding Jesus in 1984 illustrates a lot.

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