McCain's 'Evangelical Problem'

Late last week, Mark DeMoss, arguably “the most prominent public relations executive in the evangelical world,” raised a few eyebrows when he told BeliefNet that many evangelicals have a “fascination with Barack Obama.” DeMoss concluded, “…I will not be surprised if he gets one third of the evangelical vote. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 40 percent.”

And what about the Republican nominee? BeliefNet asked, “How is John McCain doing among evangelicals, a crucial Republican constituency?” DeMoss said from his perspective, no one in the evangelical community is really talking about McCain at all.

Following up, it appears some evangelicals are talking about McCain, but the campaign probably wouldn’t care for what they’re saying. Bob Novak wrote in his latest column about McCain’s “evangelical problem,” as evidenced by McCain’s “estranged” relationship with James Dobson, and the campaign’s clumsy handling of the John Hagee blunder.

And the NYT notes today just how challenging it is to resolve this problem.

[Activists’] hesitation illustrates what remains one of Mr. McCain’s biggest challenges as he faces a general election contest with Senator Barack Obama: a continued wariness toward him among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, a critical voting bloc for Republicans that could stay home in the fall or at least be decidedly unenthusiastic in their efforts to get out the vote.

To address this, Mr. McCain’s campaign has been ramping up its outreach to evangelicals over the last month, preparing a budget and a strategic plan for turning them out in 18 battleground states this fall.

So, is the outreach working? Not so much.

Barna is clearly the leading evangelical polling outlet in the nation, and his latest numbers are striking.

[T]he big news in the faith realm is the sizeable defection from Republican circles of the much larger non-evangelical born again and the notional Christian segments. The non-evangelical born again adults constitute 37% of the likely voters in November, and the notional Christians are expected to be 39% of the likely voters. Among the non-evangelical born again adults, 52% supported President Bush in 2004; yet, only 38% are currently supporting Sen. McCain, while 48% are siding with Sen. Obama.


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How can this be? For one thing, McCain’s outreach is half-hearted, in part because he’s afraid of alienating the middle while he pursues the right.

Mr. McCain’s outreach to Christian conservatives has been a quiet courting, reflecting a balancing act: his election hopes rely on drawing in the political middle and Democrats who might be turned off should he woo the religious right too heavily by, for instance, highlighting his anti-abortion position more on the campaign trail.

“If McCain tried Bush’s strategy of just mobilizing the base, he would almost certainly fall short,” said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Because the Republican brand name is less popular and the conservative base is restive, McCain has special needs to reach out to independent and moderate voters, but, of course, he can’t completely neglect the evangelical and conservative base.”

For another, conservatives have noticed.

In a sign of the lingering distrust, Mr. McCain finished last out of nine Republican candidates in a straw poll last year at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a gathering for socially conservative activists.

James C. Dobson, the influential founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, released a statement in February, when Mr. McCain was on the verge of securing the Republican nomination, affirming that he would not vote for Mr. McCain and would instead stay home if he became the nominee. Dr. Dobson later softened his stance and said he would vote but has remained critical of Mr. McCain.

“For John McCain to be competitive, he has to connect with the base to the point that they’re intense enough that they’re contagious,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Right now they’re not even coughing.”

The record is getting pretty long. McCain denounced the religious right (”agents of intolerance”) eight years ago, and bungled the Hagee and Rod Parsley fiascos. McCain can’t even talk about how, when, and whether he switched from being an Episcopalian to a Baptist without sounding completely incoherent.

The Times piece added that McCain’s advisers say they’re in a “listening mode with evangelical leaders.” I get the sense the advisers will get an earful.

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