After the news came out, a lineup of once reluctant conservative Christians came out forcefully for the Republican ticket. Even Dobson said that he was now on board. And when Palin addressed the convention, she wasted no time in making her role clear: Alluding to Obama's controversial remarks about working-class Americans who turn to guns and God when the economy sours, she presented herself as proof that his characterization was not only false but condescending. Proof, furthermore, that he was out of touch with God-fearing heartland America.
McCain hardly needed to say any more on that point when his time to speak came. His choice of Palin said it all. Not only was she antiabortion; she was against it in all cases, except to save the life of the mother. Not only was she pro-gun; she was a hunter herself. The Palin pick was seen by many as McCain's way of reigniting the culture war—a limited culture war—while not getting too directly involved in it.
In fact, says James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and the first scholar to apply the culture-war concept to the American scene, that war had never really gone away but had only moved into the background. The Palin pick, he says, returned it to the foreground, where it now shares the limelight (and headlines) with the economy and the war. But it's not, he believes, the same old battle. "The lines of the culture war are changing," he says. "The gender views, for one, were so much sharper, traditional versus modern. So much has changed in the last 28 years."
Depending on how it works out, the decision to bring the culture war back into the foreground of the campaign will be deemed a brilliant gamble or a disastrous one. McCain's senior advisers have said that Palin was picked to ensure a strong conservative turnout in decisive battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It was also hoped that she would shore up traditionally Republican western states, some of which (including Colorado) show signs of going Democratic. But if Palin draws too much attention to issues such as abortion, if the culture war heats up and comes to dominate discussion, there is a danger that she could weaken McCain's appeal not only to moderates within his own party but also to independents and conservative Democrats who might have swung his way.
So far, though, the strategy looks promising. At the 2008 Values Voter Summit earlier this month, activists as well as rank-and-file social conservatives spoke of McCain and the Republican Party as though both had finally awoken to the importance of the party's core constituency. "There is something happening that hasn't happened since Reagan," Dannenfelser says, noting the huge increase in calls and contributions that her organization received after the convention. "Even the gender gap has flipped."
A certain post-convention bounce was bound to benefit the Republican ticket, but the shift among white women voters from Obama to McCain was startling proof that the Palin pick had appeal even beyond the strictly defined social conservatives and values voters of the Republican base. An ABC News/Washing ton Post poll reported the biggest change among white women: from 50 percent to 42 percent in favor of Obama before the convention to 53 percent to 41 percent in favor of McCain after it. But what was the basis of Palin's appeal, and how did it reflect what Hunter calls the "changing lines" of the culture war?
GOP populists. Put simply, this was a culture war waged on the lines of authenticity and connectedness, a war in which the Republican ticket claims the populist mantle while depicting the opposition as out-of-touch, cosmopolitan elitists. Conservative author Michael Medved, one of the featured speakers at the recent Values Voter Summit, says that the presence of a real working mom on the ticket is part of what has made this the most populist Republican ticket in a long time. "It goes beyond values issues," he says. "If one value trumps all others, it's normality and authenticity. Both Palin and McCain are mavericks, authentic, and original."