Republicans hoping to gain the trust of evangelical voters will need to start opening up, say political experts.
At least 10 Republican presidential candidates have signed up to duke it out at a conference for religious conservatives this Saturday, and what the audience wants will require more authenticity than running down the standard political checklist, according to Frank Luntz, the conservative pollster who will be moderating.
Instead of hitting the usual conservative talking points, candidates will be asked individually to explain how their personal values fit into a broader political agenda, Mr. Luntz told The Des Moines Register.
"It won't just be about policy. It will be about personal character, about values and who these candidates really are as people," said Luntz, adding that at some point he also plans to let the audience "run the show."
About 70 percent of Americans are Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, and within that majority, Evangelicals compose the largest subgroup, at 25 percent.
Of all the states, Tennessee has the highest proportion of evangelical Christians, with 52 percent. And in neighboring Kentucky and Alabama, Evangelicals make up 49 percent of the population, according to Pew.
"Christian conservative voters could make up as much as 40 percent of the Republican primary electorate in 2016 – even more in some states, particularly in the South," reported CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson.
Evangelical voters haven’t had this many candidates to choose from in the past, but that's changed with the leap to 15 declared Republican hopefuls this year, she noted.
But with such a crowded field, "it will simply be impossible for any one of them to become the candidate of the religious right," remarked The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman. Voters’ longtime favorites have included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of The Family Leader, the Christian conservative group hosting this weekend’s summit, echoed the same sentiment.
"It's the tale of two cities, good news and bad news," he told CNN. "The good news is that we have a lot of good candidates, but the bad news is that it's also a recipe for division."
The desire for a more authentic connection partially stems from the fact that there is a distinct ambivalence among Evangelicals on how to approach today's political issues. Many disagree on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized, for example, according to The Washington Post's Daniel Silliman.
Many Evangelicals are also tired of the constant polarization, which they say detracts from their primary message to society about religion, argued Mr. Silliman.
"For these Evangelicals, there is a sense the focus on contentious cultural conflicts has hurt Christianity," he wrote in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. "Christian witness has become political statements. Christian practice has become arguments on Facebook. While they still very much believe in cultural engagement, there is a sense that they have been doing it wrong."
If candidates really want to set themselves apart, they'll have to start giving evangelical voters "a sense of who they are," David Yepsen, a Southern Illinois University policy expert who has covered nine Iowa caucuses with the Des Moines Register, told CNN.
"Everybody has to do the checklist on social issues – pro-life, gay marriage – that's a threshold they all have to meet," said Mr. Yepsen. "But Evangelicals are looking at moral character issues.... Are they a person of faith? Is this a godly person? All subjective questions."