Winning With Evangelicals
How the 2004 presidential race turned on religious outreach
To appreciate how much is at stake in the Republican contenders' struggles to win over evangelical voters-and in the vows of the Democratic candidates to change their party's secular image-just consider the 2004 election. In his new book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War, U.S. News Senior Editor Dan Gilgoff details how George W. Bush's evangelical outreach machine, and John Kerry's failure to connect with evangelicals and other religious voters, may have determined the outcome.
Despite the unprecedented get-out-the-vote efforts being organized by evangelical groups like Focus on the Family, the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign wasn't taking any chances. After the 2000 election debacle, which saw Bush lose the popular vote, White House political don Karl Rove estimated publicly that 4 million white evangelical voters had stayed home on Election Day 2000. He vowed to reinvigorate them for 2004. No other demographic that size would consistently pull the Republican lever.
But rather than blame the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign for the depressed evangelical turnout that year, the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election team pointed the finger at evangelical groups like Focus on the Family. In the eyes of the Bushies, such groups claimed huge followings but had failed to get them to the polls four years earlier. Said one Bush-Cheney '04 official: "Because the ball was dropped so precipitously in 2000, [evangelical mobilization] had to be brought inside."
Officials inside Focus on the Family's public policy shop argued that they had been much less gung-ho about mobilizing evangelical voters in 2000 than in 2004 because candidate Bush was something of an unknown quantity; he promoted "compassionate conservatism" and a "big tent" GOP rather than play up antiabortion and antigay rights themes. "We didn't really know George Bush till he was inaugurated," said Focus on the Family public policy director Tom Minnery. "At that inauguration, he had Franklin Graham ... there were church hymns being sung. It was a Christian service was what it was."
Creating motivation. Focus on the Family officials also noted that at the time of the 2000 election, Massachusetts hadn't yet legalized gay marriage, and the proposed amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage hadn't yet emerged as a key issue. Evangelicals, in other words, had fewer reasons to be motivated for Bush in 2000.
But Bush's re-election team had a different theory. When Ralph Reed left Christian Coalition after the 1996 election, the organization-which had boasted an $8.5 million budget and a thousand nationwide chapters-more or less collapsed. Membership dwindled and the group fell into debt. But, the Bushies theorized, neither GOP strategists nor Christian right groups had appreciated the vacuum in voter mobilization efforts left by Christian Coalition's implosion until the exit polls came back from 2000. "People trusted that there was still a Christian Coalition getting out the vote," said one Bush-Cheney '04 official. "But Christian Coalition had fallen apart, and no one else had picked up the slack yet."
So in 2004, the Bush team vowed to take evangelical mobilization into its own hands. In 2000, the Bush campaign had outsourced evangelical outreach to the consulting firm that Ralph Reed launched after leaving Christian Coalition. In 2004, Bush's campaign instead hired Reed to work from the inside. Officially, he was the Bush-Cheney chairman for the southeast region of the United States. But his more important assignment was to construct a vast volunteer infrastructure, extending into tens of thousands of voter precincts, to get evangelicals to the polls. "It was very new in terms of ... full-scale investment in this particular demographic," said Gary Marx, who worked under Reed as the Bush-Cheney 2004 national conservative coalition director. "It was the first time in Republican political history that the presidential campaign was run in such a way that this was a formalized element in everything we did, from radio buys to direct mail. ... It was a demographic group that was courted ... just as soccer moms were in 2000 and NASCAR dads in 2002."