WASHINGTON — Got God? Republican candidates for president might want to demonstrate they do, because faith matters to a large segment of GOP primary voters.
Courting the faith community brought nearly all of the declared Republican presidential contenders here on Friday and Saturday to address conservative strategist Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Conference, which attracted more than 1,000 social conservatives from across the country.
It is one event that candidates are willing to risk precious face time away from voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to attend. A Gallup poll last week showed 91 percent of Americans believe in God, down slightly from an all-time high of 94 percent in a 1994 survey.
That means people who care deeply about religious values could swing a tight election, said Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University political scientist who specializes in religion. Although the GOP field appears crowded, states with early primaries likely will decide who emerges as the party’s nominee, she said.
"Given that 29 percent of Americans self-identify as fiscal and social conservatives, Republican aspirants understand the need to address all the conservative planks, not simply one," she said.
During the Conservative Political Action Conference here in February, Republican politicians referred to the three-legged stool of conservatism: social, fiscal and national security.
The so-called "God" voters, for either party, aren’t Americans sitting with good posture on wooden pews as they listen to pipe organs and talking as if they were plucked from the King James Bible, said Democratic political consultant Burns Strider, who specializes in courting the religious vote. They’re average folks who might spend Sundays after church playing golf or taking their families on outings, he said.
"They hold faith-based values that undergird their political choices, and no matter how you pray over that, it’s the bulk of this nation," Strider said.
Even the undeclared GOP candidates recognized the importance of wooing the religious vote.
"Faith voters are very important," said former Utah governor and potential candidate Jon Huntsman, who was President Obama’s U.S. ambassador to China until May. "You win their trust through showing the connection between the problems plaguing our values system and its effect on the economy."
Huntsman and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of whom spoke Friday, have said they intend to announce their 2012 plans soon, although neither would give specifics.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the perceived front-runner so far, slammed Obama in his speech on Friday for failing "good and decent Americans."
"Sixteen million Americans are out of work or have stopped looking for work," he said. "Make no mistake. This is a moral tragedy — a moral tragedy of epic proportion. … Unemployment means kids can’t go to college, that marriages break up under the financial strain, that young people can’t find work and start their lives, and men and women in their 50s — in the prime of their lives — fear they will never find a job again."
Businessman Herman Cain was tapped to deliver Saturday night’s keynote speech. Other speakers: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; Green Tree native and Texas Rep. Ron Paul; businessman Donald Trump, who flirted with the prospect of running; Fox News Channel commentator Glenn Beck; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a declared candidate, sent a video.
As Mormons, Huntsman and Romney stand to gain the most among the candidates from attending the evangelical event, Wilson said. That’s because a Pew Research Center poll released last week suggested that 25 percent of Americans are wary about electing a Mormon president. Showcasing them here, Wilson said, "helps to demystify the beliefs of Mormons."
"It also shows the degree to which Republicans, like Democrats, must reach out to religious minority voters in order to secure a presidential victory in 2012," Wilson said.
About 24 percent of American adults identify themselves as Catholic, according to Pew’s 2008 survey on religion in America. About 7 percent identify themselves as Southern Baptist and about 2 percent identify themselves as Mormon.
"Then add in United Methodists, Church of God, Assemblies of God, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians and on and on, and suddenly, the bulk of our nation is part of the God vote," Strider said.
No dominant issue in an election cycle typically drives the outreach work needed to build relationships and earn votes from religious conservatives, the experts said.
"Faith is the core. It is the lens Americans look through to define, understand and prioritize what they find important and friendly in their politics and government, and this includes economic issues," Strider said.