Playing Politics at Christmas

Religious appeals are falling short in Iowa as the economy tops voters' minds.

Christmas is upon us, but that doesn’t mean Republican primary voters are warming to religious appeals by their presidential hopefuls.  

In fact, the opposite may be true. And that could mean a lump of coal this holiday season for the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Rick Santorum, who have all sought to capture the Evangelical support that united behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.

As voters rush to finish their Christmas shopping and prepare family feasts, it’s likely their fattening credit card bills are at the forefront of their minds. Plenty are worried about getting gifts under the tree or paying the mortgage. And it’s that sort of thing—as opposed to the cultural and social issues the holiday evokes—that could influence their vote.

“Most especially this time of year the economy is No.1,” says Chip Saltsman, who managed Huckabee's ’08 White House bid. “That changes the dynamic of what people are looking for.”

Polling backs that up.

“Because of the [economic] downturn, voters don’t care as much about professions of religious faith,” says Ann Selzer, whose firm Selzer&Co. polls for the Des Moines Register.

She continues: “The Mike Huckabee win brought out some Christian conservative candidates who believed they had a good shot, like Huckabee, to win Iowa. The world has changed since 2008. Jobs, the economy, taxes—all are more important in every poll than social issues.”

Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses last cycle by building a coalition of interest groups, including home schoolers and anti-taxers. It’s a coalition no candidate has come close to putting together this time around despite relentless courting of the state’s Evangelical base.   

Last time around, Huckabee also crafted an appeal that centered on his faith, which generated some controversy.

Huckabee’s camp was the first to go up with a Christmas-themed TV ad in early December 2007. The ad, "What Really Matters," contained what appeared to be a cross in the background. Some labeled it subliminal messaging meant to appeal to religious conservatives.

“It was a shelf, a book shelf,” Saltsman insists.

Christian imagery aside, Saltsman recalls a simple formula for the spot: a stone hearth, a Christmas tree and a red sweater on the former Arkansas governor.

“We couldn’t get the fire stoked up enough, but we got everything else,” he says. “[Huckabee] did that in two takes, no script.”

The 30-second ad brought out the Scrooge in some commentators, though. The day after it went up, Saltsman found himself on MSNBC's Hardball getting an earful from host Chris Matthews for injecting religion into politics.

This time around, holiday spots from the candidates haven't garnered nearly as much attention as Huckabee's. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) rolled out one featuring his son -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- making a pitch for his dad to Iowa voters in front of a Christmas tree. Newt Gingrich's holiday spot features his wife Callista. And Rick Perry is running a spot touting his support from veterans.  

One thing there won’t be much chance for over the next couple of days is negativity. As part of an unspoken truce, there will be a lull in campaigning over Christmas, with negative ads disappearing from the airways. The Super PAC running anti-Gingrich ads in Iowa will not air them on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. 

But after the holiday, says Saltsman, “it is a sprint out to Jan. 3.”

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