Three Lessons From the Values Voter Summit

Three Lessons From the Values Voter Summit

Three Lessons From the Values Voter Summit

 What a visit to the heart of American social conservatism tells us about the presidential race. 


The Values Voter Summit is an annual confab of several thousand religious right activists in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Family Research Council. This year’s conference was the biggest in its history. Every major Republican candidate for president was invited to speak, and they all did, except for Jon Huntsman. Here are the three things I learned from attending.

Ron Paul ruins straw polls. When I walked into the Values Voter Summit on Saturday morning, the second day of the two-day conference, I encountered a long line of new arrivals registering, and another line for voting in the straw poll. “Great,” I thought, “I’ll interview them about who they’re voting for and why.” I immediately ascertained, though, that the line was composed almost entirely of Ron Paul supporters who had come merely to vote for him. They were decked out in Paul buttons, gladly paying $75 for the privilege of helping Paul win a meaningless poll. “If someone’s going to beat Obama,” I overheard one say to another, “it’s not going to be a social conservative.”

Since the straw poll balloting is secret, the FRC could not say with certainty how badly Paul’s machinations skewed the results. But they said over 600 people arrived Saturday, and some left right after Paul spoke. The official results are that Paul won 732 votes out of the 1,983. That gives him 37 percent. Herman Cain came in second with 23 percent, followed by 16 percent for Rick Santorum, 8 percent each for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and 4 percent for Mitt Romney. The fact that Bachmann, Perry and Romney all got fewer votes than Santorum and Cain might indicate some surprising trends among socially conservative activists. The fact that Paul made a mockery of the purpose of the straw poll does not. “[The results] show that Paul has a very good organization, but it’s not predictive,” says Ed Morrissey, an editor for the popular conservative website Hot Air.

Nonetheless, much of the media is reporting the results in a math-illiterate manner. NPR, for instance, while acknowledging the limits of any straw poll and pointing out that social conservatives skew especially against Romney, said that Romney and Perry’s low percentages indicate conservative dissatisfaction with the leading Republican contenders. The fact that Cain outperformed Perry and Romney does reflect that phenomenon. And as I pointed out on Friday, they may also turn to Santorum.

But no one should read too much into Perry and Romney’s percentages. If up to one-third of the voters were not typical attendees but Paul supporters who came just to affect the straw poll, that doesn’t only drive Paul’s percentage up, it drives everyone else’s down. If you subtract 600 of Paul’s votes from the overall number, you get 1,383 votes. Using that as your denominator, Cain would win with 32 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with 23 percent, Perry with 12 percent, Bachmann with 11 percent (Perry got ten more votes than Bachmann) and Romney with 6 percent. Obviously, that shows weakness among social conservatives for Romney and surprising strength for Cain and Santorum, but it’s not as bad for Perry as most reports are making it out to be.

Herman Cain’s momentum is real. When Cain won the Florida Republican straw poll in a landslide I doubted that it meant anything. But, as polls attest, conservatives have been abandoning Rick Perry and Cain is enjoying his moment as the vessel for their hopes.

Cain’s address at the Values Voter Summit helps explain why. There was a palpable excitement in the crowd surrounding Cain’s entrance and his speech amplified it. While other candidates boast about their political achievements from years ago and list policy promises, Cain emphasizes big themes. Like the difference between Barack Obama, who inspired crowds, and Hillary Clinton, who bored them, in the 2008 Democratic Party, Cain is simply more exciting to on the stump than his opponents.

Cain is a radio host, and he knows how to entertain a crowd. He also hits a conservative sweet spot, much like Representative Allen West (R-FL): for a conservative black man, supporting him feels like an affirmation that one’s opposition to the interests of African-Americans isn’t racist. The thrust of Cain’s speech was that America is awesome, and his own rise from humble roots to fame and fortune illustrates this perfectly. “What’s interesting about Cain is that he has very little organization,” observers Morrissey. “He’s a very good orator and people respond to him.”

Michele Bachmann is getting desperate. Bachmann has become so associated with the Tea Party’s rhetoric of small government and fiscal conservatism that one can forget she arose to prominence as a strident religious social conservative. Bachmann, who briefly challenged Romney for front-runner status, has been sinking in the polls ever since Perry got in the race. Since Perry attacked right-wingers who think he is too soft on the children of illegal immigrants because he wants to let them attend college for the same tuition as their neighbors by saying they “don’t have a heart,” he has been losing support on his right flank. But those voters are flocking to Cain, not back to Bachmann.

So Bachmann needs to reach the sort of leaders in conservative communities who attend the Values Voter Summit. Her speech contained not only her usual bromides about the perfidy of “Obamacare,” financial reform, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education, but a larger than usual emphasis on her personal faith. “When I was 16 years of age, I chose to select a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I stand with him,” said Bachmann. Her chief policy adviser, she claims, is God, saying, “I consult the Lord through prayer on almost every decision that I make.” Bachmann also went into greater depth on social issues, detailing her career of commitment to “life” and “traditional marriage.”

But what was really notable about Bachmann’s speech was her repeated insistence that Republicans will win no matter who they nominate for president, so they need not compromise their principles when picking a candidate. It’s an obvious swipe at Romney, who used to be moderate on a host of issues, and Perry who is a corporatist career politician. And she adds that she will work tirelessly to elect a Republican Senate so that their full agenda can be enacted.

Give Bachmann credit for reminding Republicans, which her opponents seldom do, that the president cannot govern by fiat. They all pledge to repeal Obama’s signature achievements, but they won’t be able to keep those promises if Republicans don’t win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

But a practical-minded Republican activist might think that even if Bachmann could eek out a victory against Obama, they will pick up more Senate and Congressional seats if they nominate a less polarizing candidate for president.

“Conservatives, we can have it all this year, because Barack Obama will be a one-term president,” said Bachmann. “Don’t listen to these people who every four years tell you we have to select a moderate from our party and we have to settle for the sake of winning. I am here to tell you, we are going to win, not—this year we don’t settle. We’re going to win the White House. So let’s finally have one of us in the White House.”

She then went on to take direct jabs at the front runners she was implying are not true conservatives. First Romney:“You won’t find YouTube clips of me speaking in support of Roe versus Wade. You won’t find me equivocating or hemming or hawing when I’m asked to define marriage as between one man and one woman.” And, aiming at Perry, she added, “And you won’t find me tagged as a crony capitalist, paying off big political donors with big political favors.”

As Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association pointed out to me, Cain has the advantage over Perry and Romney of not having held an executive elected office. Everyone makes compromises and mistakes in that position. That means Cain can run on ideology and criticize the other frontrunners’ records with impunity. Bachmann, as legislator with a short Congressional career in which she has emphasized purity over accomplishment, has the same advantage as Cain vis-à-vis Romney and Perry. She’s trying to use it. But if present trends continue, she’ll need to find a line of attack against Cain as well. 

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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