Randy Brinson says he "almost fell out of my chair" when he heard that expected Democratic nominee Barack Obama had chosen Zanesville, Ohio, as the setting for a recent speech in which he embraced the concept of using faith-based groups to help carry out government social service efforts.
It wasn't that Zanesville struck Brinson as an odd locale. Quite the opposite. It was that Obama had clearly figured out something that Brinson already knew.
"Zanesville is Ground Zero for conservative evangelicals in Ohio," says Brinson, who, as founder of the voter registration organization "Redeem the Vote," knows a thing or two about where to find conservative Christians. It's a place, he says, that is populated with just the kind of recently reliable Republican voters Obama has tried to woo with a strategy that Brinson and other Christian leaders say they have found remarkable.
"They've researched where the votes are, and they've thrown away the old Democratic playbooks," says Brinson, who is among the evangelical leaders the Obama camp has reached out to. "Instead of just relying on a large number of urban votes, they're going to suburban areas and reaching out to a large number of conservatives." And so are Obama supporters: the religious political action committee Matthew 25 has already aired a pro-Obama ad on Christian radio in Colorado Springs, Colo., home of evangelical leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a harsh critic of the Democratic candidate.
Zanesville is one of the places where Brinson's five-year-old nonprofit group found particularly fertile ground for signing up "people of faith," he says. His group registered more than 78,000 people nationwide in 2004 and was instrumental in boosting the ranks of conservative white Christian voters who helped President Bush win his second term. Redeem the Vote now touts its 70 million-plus E-mail list that targets evangelicals. Mike Huckabee used the list to help him win eight primary and caucus contests before ceding the race to presumed GOP nominee John McCain.
"Where the Obama campaign is going is right on target, and that's why he's doing so well," Brinson said.
Not that anyone is predicting that Obama will wrest a majority of conservative Christian voters away from McCain, who was favored by 64 percent of white evangelical voters surveyed in a CNN-sponsored poll earlier this month. That's without any appreciable McCain outreach to conservative Christians. But it's also far less than the 78 percent who voted for Bush in 2004, and Obama, supported by 30 percent of evangelicals in that same poll, has been working to chip away at least a few more percentage points from McCain. Conservative leaders figure that if Obama can wrap up support from at least 35 percent of self-identified white evangelicals and a majority of Catholics, he would win in November.
Though recent polls show the race nationally has tightened, with McCain gaining ground, there continues to be opportunity for Obama to pick up evangelical voters—even according to McCain partisans, who have been disappointed in their candidate's lack of a rock-the-evangelical-vote strategy. "The evangelical movement is changing," says a major McCain fundraiser. "It's moving to a bigger place—it's not just pro-life, but includes people who care deeply about homelessness, the environment, Darfur."
"This movement is the next generation," he said. "The question 'Who is an evangelical?' involves a much broader picture. And the guy who has been talking about faith is Obama." He predicted that the movement's transformation would have an influence this election, but won't fully play out until future contests.
Obama's faith-based appeal has also been making traditional conservative Christian power players like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council nervous. "I was at a conservative evangelical church in Louisiana," Perkins says, "and a man came up to me and asked: 'Barack Obama or John McCain—which way are we going?' "
Perkins says he thought the man was joking, but "he was serious." So Perkins says he outlined McCain's bona fides on threshold issues for many conservative Christians: the candidate, he told the man, is anti-abortion and opposed to same-sex marriage. Obama supports legalized abortion and civil unions for gay partners. "The guy had been listening to Obama, and wasn't aware of his record on social and cultural issues," he says. "People a few layers outside the Beltway don't really get into the weeds on someone's record—they go based on the 30-second sound bite.
"And Barack Obama has the language down."
But there are risks to Obama's strategy. In reaching out to evangelicals—including his support of maintaining his own version of the Bush era faith-based White House effort—he has been in danger of offending the Democratic base and left-leaning evangelicals, Brinson says.
"Is he willing to take that risk?" Brinson said. "Is he willing to risk offending Planned Parenthood, for example, if he proposes a legislative initiative to reduce abortions?" Leaders of the religious right, he says, aren't the only ones waiting to see how close Obama can get to the fire without getting burned.