1/17/2008--Aside from the obvious fact that Mitt Romney got the win he needed, what does the Michigan Primary result tell us about the role of religion in American political life?
Romney was helped greatly in Michigan by the fact that voters are more worried about the economy than they have been up till now. Romney would have done well in Michigan anyway, but the current concern about a recession reinforced the long-standing worry in that State about jobs and future economic growth. Perhaps Romney pandered to that feeling—I was sorry to see John McCain hurt because he told the truth about auto jobs lost forever—but Romney put himself into position to take advantage of these concerns.
Mike Huckabee’s relatively weak performance in Michigan suggests that when an issue like the economy surfaces, voters will tend to relegate faith issues to a lesser position. Something similar might be behind the willingness of some conservative voters to overlook Rudy Giuliani’s checkered personal history and certain policy positions because they are concerned mostly about national security.
This is not surprising. People worried about their jobs or their family’s safety will vote to protect themselves almost no matter what. Supporting someone who shares your values may take a back-seat at that point.
For someone like Huckabee this means either doing well in States where these concers are not so pronounced—as in South Carolina, perhaps—and reassuring voters that there is more to his campaign than just the ties of faith. Huckabee’s recent emphasis on his support for a constitutional marriage amendment is therefore probably a tactical mistake right now.
Does all this show that religion in public life is a fragile and temporary phenomenon? No. It just shows that religion, for most voters, is not the sole matter at stake in an election. That is true of almost any political consideration.