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."
More than a year before Election Day, Reed appointed chairpersons for social conservative outreach in a dozen and a half battleground states. State chairs appointed regional and county chairpersons, who recruited volunteer foot soldiers. "It was a brilliant strategy to integrate the social conservative constituency into the campaign," Reed said after the election. "The Democrats did the opposite. Their ground game was outsourced ... to MoveOn.org and labor groups."
In Florida, Reed drafted Pam Olsen, the leader of Florida Prayer Network, to be state chairperson for social conservative outreach. In 2000, Olsen had staged a 40-day fast before Election Day and a second fast from Election Day till the Bush-Gore recount fiasco was resolved. After being tapped by Reed in late 2003, she quickly appointed a dozen regional coordinators around the state, along with chairpersons in each of Florida's 67 counties. Each county chairperson signed up 30 to 50 volunteers.
As in other states, Olsen's network had two objectives: persuading evangelical churches to host voter registration drives, and convincing pastors to speak from the pulpit on the importance of making voting decisions based on hot button issues. "The word of God says God is pro-life and that God is for marriage between a man and a woman," Olsen said after the election. "With issues like education or poverty or the war in Iraq, Christians fall on both sides."
Armed with a database of 5,000 churches, Olsen made no attempt to discourage pastors from registering Democrats or John Kerry supporters. That's because the Bush campaign had calculated that 7 in 10 new evangelical voters would support Bush.
Efforts like Olsen's were replicated in other battleground states. Of the 1.4 million volunteers the Bush re-election team signed up, Reed estimates that up to 350,000 were "pro-family" conservatives, mostly evangelicals. But Reed's get-out-the-evangelical-vote machine was nearly invisible to the media. The conventional wisdom was that Bush was connecting with evangelicals through coded rhetoric and conservative stances, leaving churches to mobilize themselves. Feeding that perception was the bad press the Republican National Committee got in July 2004, when it was reported that the RNC had solicited church directories from Catholic supporters in Pennsylvania. Even Richard Land, president of the public policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention and a staunch Bush ally, said he was appalled by the strategy, calling it a "violation of the sanctity of the [church] body."
Networking through directories. But because there were virtually no follow-up accounts of the RNC seeking church directories after the Pennsylvania incident, the widespread assumption was that the GOP had pulled the plug on the operation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bush campaign continued to zealously pursue church directories to identify and sign up new evangelical voters even after the RNC had been exposed in Pennsylvania. Reed's network funneled directories from thousands of evangelical churches to Bush-Cheney headquarters. "We would input all the individual [church directory] lists, match them against the voter files, and find out-surprise, surprise-there are millions of people who attend church who are not registered to vote," said Marx, the Bush-Cheney '04 conservative coalition director.
Bush-Cheney headquarters sent the names of unregistered churchgoers back to volunteers across the country, who would call their evangelical neighbors and urge them to register. Some volunteers even offered to deliver registration forms and absentee ballots. Asked how many new voters the Bush campaign registered this way, Marx estimated the figure to be "in the range of millions."
Between the efforts of the Bush-Cheney campaign, the RNC, and outside groups like Focus on the Family, Rove nearly met his goal of turning out 4 million more evangelicals in 2004. Exit polls showed that 3.5 million white evangelicals who stayed home in 2000 cast ballots in 2004. Bush also captured a larger share of the evangelical vote in 2004-78 percent-than in 2000, when 68 percent backed him. Between new evangelical voters and those who had voted for Gore in 2000, Bush picked up nearly 6 million new evangelical votes, about twice his margin of victory.
Of course, to the true believers who built Bush's 2004 evangelical voter machine, there was more than demographics at work in his re-election. "Prayer was a hugely important part of the strategy," said Olsen, the Florida chairwoman for social conservative outreach. "I prayed that people not be persuaded by their pocketbooks [at the voting booth] but that ... they voted as if God was to come down and vote."
By April 2004, The John Kerry campaign had hired a born-again Christian and ex-Howard Dean aide named Mara Vanderslice to be its religious outreach director. At that point in the election cycle, Reed had been at work for six months assembling his evangelical outreach machine for President Bush. He had appointed chairpersons for social conservative outreach in battleground states. He had signed up tens of thousands of evangelical volunteers. Reed had begun collecting church directories to sign up new evangelical voters.
Vanderslice's operation inside the Kerry campaign was more modest. It comprised herself, then 29, and an unpaid intern. She had no volunteer lists. Except for Kerry's appearances before African-American congregations, the campaign had resolved to stay out of churches. "They didn't have any vision at all," Vanderslice said of the campaign's religious outreach strategy. "I just kind of had to make it up."
There were six months till Election Day.
Even before Kerry emerged as the Democratic front-runner, he had drawn fire from a handful of Catholic bishops. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would refuse to give Holy Communion to Kerry, a former altar boy and lifelong Catholic, because he was pro-choice. A Colorado Springs bishop went so far as to instruct Catholic voters who backed candidates supportive of abortion rights to forgo Communion.
Kerry was surprised and hurt by the attacks, according to aides. "I've met with many bishops ... on this very subject before and after the campaign," he said after the election. "And key prelates in the church have indicated to me that nowhere in canon law is there any refusal of the Eucharist to a parishioner." Still, Kerry responded swiftly at the time in the news media, expressing his respect for the bishops while affirming his own Catholic commitment and his opposition to "legislating articles of faith."
But beyond Kerry's own reactions in the press, his campaign declined to dispatch credible Catholic figures in his defense or to reach out to Catholics with Kerry's response. The way the story was playing out in the media, it was easy to infer that a rift had opened between Kerry and the Roman Catholic Church he claimed to belong to. "There were many conversations about it, but there was a lot of fear and indecision about how to respond," Vanderslice said. "[N]ot having some backup within the broader Catholic community made [the campaign] even more timid." The Kerry campaign decided to ignore the bishops.
Kerry's privacy. But one of Vanderslice's goals remained getting Kerry to open up about his faith. She noticed that Kerry's appearance at Ronald Reagan's funeral in June 2004, where he crossed himself over Reagan's coffin, went a long way in making religious people comfortable with him. "People were longing to understand ... what was guiding him," Vanderslice said. But Kerry was reluctant to discuss his faith, in contrast to President Bush, whose tale of conversion from drunk to born-again was well known.
It wasn't until 10 days before Election Day that Kerry delivered his so-called faith and values speech. At a stop in Florida, Kerry quoted from all four Gospels and the Ten Commandments. He spoke of how his Catholicism played into his upbringing and his service in the Vietnam War. He explained the Catholic notion of the "common good." The Washington Post called it "perhaps the most overtly religious speech of the campaign by either candidate."
Vanderslice welcomed the speech, but thought it came much too late. She had tried for months to insert religious themes into message development, but was stymied by senior campaign officials. She also felt that Kerry's "faith and values" speech was delivered in the wrong venue: to a largely Jewish audience in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Vanderslice had long pressed for Kerry to appear in an overtly Christian setting, like an evangelical or Catholic college, but she met with resistance from the campaign.
The Kerry campaign's fears about its religious outreach effort backfiring seemed to be vindicated in June 2004, when the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a press release attacking Kerry for hiring Vanderslice. It assailed Vanderslice for her involvement with her college's Socialist Alliance and noted her role as an organizer for World Trade Organization and World Bank protests. "Her rÃÂÂmÃÂÂs that of a person looking for a job ... for Fidel Castro," the league said. "Just wait until Catholics and Protestants learn who this lady really is."
After the Catholic League attack, Vanderslice was barred by the Kerry campaign from speaking to the press. She had been hired barely a month earlier. When the Catholic League later criticized the religious outreach director for the Democratic National Committee, that person was silenced as well. The result was that the Democrats' ties to the religious press were completely severed. "Reporters from the religious press ... didn't get their phone calls returned for two or three months," Vanderslice said.
That helps explain why Christianity Today's October 2004 John Kerry profile read like a hatchet job. The magazine noted that the Democratic nominee invoked God's name just once in the three days that its reporter rode aboard the campaign's press plane, and then in a secular context. Denied an interview with Kerry, Christianity Today resorted to citing his 1998 interview with American Windsurfer magazine as a source for "some of his most detailed public comments about his theological ideals." The story skewered Kerry's support for abortion rights and gay rights.
Barred from speaking to the press, Vanderslice focused on organizing grass-roots religious volunteers. The Bush campaign signed up more than 300,000 conservative religious volunteers; Vanderslice worked with a national volunteer list of 700. Rather than actively court volunteers, she simply tried to keep up with the calls and E-mails from religious Kerry supporters. They were requesting everything from bumper stickers and buttons to talking points on why Catholics could support Kerry despite the criticisms he'd received from Catholic bishops.
In addition to losing the evangelical vote by the most lopsided margin on record for a presidential candidate, election returns showed that Kerry became the first Democratic presidential candidate in memory to lose the Catholic vote, despite his own Catholicism.
In the crucial battleground of Ohio, Kerry won only about 1 in 3 weekly churchgoers. Two years later, in the 2006 midterms, successful Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown would increase his share of weekly churchgoers to 48 percent. Had Kerry done that well among those Ohioans, he'd be in the White House today.
From The Jesus Machine by Dan Gilgoff. Copyright ÃÂÃÂ© 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press
This story appears in the March 5, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.