We remember presidents, even the ones who served briefly or weakly.
Sometimes, though, unsuccessful candidates for the presidency have had a lasting impact on the country as well.
Henry Clay was one of the most influential politicians of his era, brokering two major compromises that delayed the Civil War for decades. Williams Jennings Bryan animated the populist movement of the late 1800s and, according to one biographer, helped “transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire to the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants.” Al Smith introduced Americans to the notion that a Catholic could run for our highest office.
And then there was Pat Robertson.
Robertson, who died Thursday at age 93, played many roles. Religious broadcaster. University founder. Author of 15 books (some of which have been called anti-Semitic and laced with conspiracy theories). Leader of a political movement. And one-time presidential candidate.
Robertson’s presidential campaign in 1988 was exciting for a time, until it fizzled out, but he still went on to help transform the Republican Party in ways that are still very much felt today. Robertson helped bring evangelicals out of the pews and into politics. He was not the first or the only person to do this, but he did it in a more organized fashion than anyone before him. At one point, the Republican Party was dominated by its conservative views on economics — low taxes and limited government. Now that’s overlaid with a social conservatism that Robertson — along with a fellow religious broadcaster, the late Jerry Falwell — helped usher in.
Both men grew up in Virginia and went on to become televangelists, found political organizations — the Moral Majority for Falwell, the Christian Coalition for Robertson — and establish universities dedicated to their conservative theology, Liberty University for Falwell, Regent University for Robertson. Both were famous for their political pronouncements — against abortion, against homosexuality — but only one of them ever ran for president.
Robertson grew up in a political family. His father was Willis Robertson, who served 20 years as a U.S. senator from Virginia. If his name is unfamiliar to us today, it’s because he served alongside — and in the shadow of — Harry Byrd Sr. of Byrd Machine fame. Robertson was the classic conservative Southern Democrat of his day; his loss in a 1966 primary to the more liberal William Spong represents one of the turning points in the state’s political history.
Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson grew up in Lexington (although from age 11 on he attended private schools out of state) and graduated from Washington & Lee University and Yale Law School. Given his family connections, he could have pursued a more conventional path into politics. Instead, he had a religious conversion. In an interview with the Associated Press in 1987, his wife, Dede, said this transformation came quickly: “He stunned her by pouring out their liquor, tearing a nude print off the wall and declaring he had found the Lord.” AP also reports this little-known fact: Robertson “moved into a commune in New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood because Robertson said God told him to sell all his possessions and minister to the poor.” His wife almost left him over this. But she stayed, and in 1959 Robertson graduated from New York Theological Seminary. Instead of seeking a pulpit in a church, he sought a different kind of pulpit. He bought a television license.
Whether you liked him or loathed him, Robertson was a visionary. An ultra-high frequency station in Portsmouth had gone bankrupt. At the time, UHF stations were exotic channels that most people couldn’t receive. Over time, all that changed. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Station went on the air in 1961. By 1977, CBN had launched a cable channel, as the enterprise evolved with technology. When Robertson bought his television license, he had just $70 in his pocket, according to the Associated Press. When he sold one of his spinoffs — The Family Channel — to a Rupert Murdoch company in 1997, the sale price was $1.9 billion.
Falwell got involved in politics by founding the Moral Majority in 1979. Robertson’s entry came later. When he announced in 1986 that he would seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, his announcement seemed a curiosity at best. Vice President George H.W. Bush was clearly the frontrunner, with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole as the main challenger. Or at least that was the thinking at the time. Robertson was an unconventional candidate in many ways: He said he would only run if three million people signed petitions to say they’d work for him, pray for him — and donate money to his campaign. They did. “Political historians may view it as one of the most ingenious things a candidate ever did,” University of Virginia sociologist and Robertson biographer Jeffrey Hadden once told AP. In a time before social media, Robertson suddenly had a grassroots organization. And for a time it scared the bejeebers out of the Republican establishment.
In the Iowa caucuses, Dole finished first, Robertson second and the vice president a distant third. Suddenly, Bush was considered weak and Robertson was taken more seriously. Just not seriously enough. Robertson fared poorly in the New Hampshire primary; he took just 9% of the vote. Bush roared back to beat Dole soundly there and while those two went back and forth for a while, Robertson was never again in the picture. Bush swept all but one state in the Southern-dominated Super Tuesday primary and that was it. Even in Robertson’s native Virginia, he ran a distant third: Bush took 53%, Dole 26%, Robertson just under 14%.
Some historical notes for posterity: That was Virginia’s first-ever Republican presidential primary. And Bush carried every locality. Robertson’s best locality was Bath County, where he maintained a mountain retreat. He took 30.4% of the vote there, good enough for second place. Just behind Bath was Rockingham County, where Robertson took 30.0% for another second-place showing. In Alexandria, though, just 4.7% of Republican voters backed Robertson; in Carroll County, just 5%. Those are two very different types of localities, which shows the degree to which Robertson failed to break through in his home state. He even finished third even in his adopted home of Virginia Beach.
For some candidates, losing is the end. For Robertson, it was just the beginning. He poured his energy into the Christian Coalition, which for a time became a significant force in Republican politics. In 1997, Fortune magazine ranked it as the seventh most influential political organization in the country. The coalition was famous — some might say infamous — for its supposedly nonpartisan voter guides, which it distributed through conservative churches just before elections. In pre-social media days, these pamphlets were considered quite effective — and controversial. Critics alleged that these nonpartisan guides were, in fact, quite partisan and in 1999 the Internal Revenue Service rejected the Christian Coalition’s bid for nonprofit status. Even by then, the organization was starting to wane. In the mid-’90s, the Christian Coalition was bringing in $26.5 million a year, according to Washington Post reporting at the time. By the mid-2000s, it was having trouble paying its postage. Today, an organization by that name remains, based now in South Carolina, but it’s no longer anywhere near the force that it once was. In some ways, though, that’s also a sign of the Christian Coalition’s success. Today the social conservatism that the Christian Coalition pushed is more thoroughly infused through the Republican Party.
Here’s one measure of how politics has changed. In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Baptist from Georgia, split the evangelical vote with Republican Gerald Ford. By 1992, 61% of white evangelicals identified as Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2020, that figure was north of 80%. The very nature of the Republican Party has changed.
Robertson alone didn’t do that — you can trace some of this back to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 — but he and his Christian Coalition were certainly major players in that realignment. Whether this is good or bad likely depends on your political point of view, but either way it’s a fact of political life.
Robertson’s political legacy is felt in other ways. The school he founded, Regent University, has been a training ground for Republican officeholders, some elected, some appointed. In Virginia, former Gov. Bob McDonnell earned a law degree and master’s degree from Regent; today he teaches there. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears has a master’s degree from Regent. More than 150 Regent graduates served in the administration of George W. Bush. Donald Trump campaigned there in 2016, prompting some alumni to complain that Trump’s behavior did not comport with the religious values they’d been taught.
Robertson also founded the American Center for Law and Justice, often seen as a conservative version of the American Civil Liberties Union (although those who follow the ACLU closely may notice it doesn’t always back liberal causes). Robertson didn’t just lead a movement, he founded institutions — institutions that outlive him.
Robertson sparked enough controversies to fill an internet full of examples: suggesting that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were punishments from God, claiming that Haiti’s founders has made a “pact to the devil” which is why an earthquake later rocked the nation, calling for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — the list could go on and on. In time, though, all those things will fade from memory. But the realignment of our politics, and the institutions Robertson created, will remain.