A bloc of Christian conservative activists delivered effectively a group endorsement of former senator Rick Santorum on Saturday after a meeting in Texas, looking to establish him as the primary alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.
But it probably won’t get Santorum to a win in South Carolina, which he needs to blunt Romney’s momentum. Here’s why:
1. These leaders have limited influence. The endorsements of people like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson or Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who attended the Texas gathering, are unlikely to sway many grassroots Republicans.
These leaders had major tensions with Sen. John McCain, but he won the GOP nomination in 2008 anyway. Back then, despite the consternation of many conservative leaders, McCain won 27 percent of the evangelical vote in South Carolina, helping him win that pivotal primary.
Mike Huckabee won the social conservative vote (43 percent) but McCain’s getting a quarter of that vote prevented Huckabee from winniing.
2. White evangelicals, as opposed to African-American evangelicals, are overwhelmingly Republican. They are a key group for any potential GOP nominee to win in the general election.
But in the primary, they rarely operate as some kind of unified voting group, the way African-Americans were in 2008 behind Barack Obama. Remember, that same year, a former evangelical pastor, Huckabee, lost to McCain in part because the Arizona senator, who rarely spoke of religion, captured a segment of the evangelical vote in almost very primary state outside of Iowa. (I covered Huckabee while at the Washington Post in 2008 and was surprised at the challenges he had in getting evangelicals behind him.)
No Republican candidate will get 90 percent of the evangelical vote the way Obama got huge swaths of the black vote in 2008 in the primaries.
3. It’s very late
Santorum has a limited on-the-ground operation in South Carolina. These social conservative leaders have networks in the state, but can they overcome the prodigious money advantage of Romney, who can afford far more television ads than Santorum? And in a week, can they convince social conservatives who like Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich to abandon those candidates and get behind Santorum?