Reading about presumed Republican presidential candidate John McCain's outreach to so-called evangelical voters and "leaders" is like reading the 2004 presidential coverage only in reverse. Reporters should take whatever efforts McCain's campaign makes to "outreach" to evangelical leaders with a large grain of salt. There are several reasons for this. Contrary to the common assumptions, evangelicals are anything but homogeneous. Along with that, there is a diverse group of evangelical leaders and evangelicals are not easily led. Lastly, few evangelical leaders have expressed much excitement for a McCain presidency.
This of course makes the story much more difficult to cover, particularly compared to four years ago when magazine covers blared the common knowledge that evangelicals were voting in huge numbers for Republican George W. Bush and helped push him into his second term in office.
Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News appropriately conveyed this skepticism Sunday as he wrote about how McCain is stepping "up efforts to woo religious voters." Slater, in his second paragraph, reports that McCain's campaign has already written off the evangelical as a way of winning in November:
But even as he woos evangelicals, his campaign is pursuing a different strategy -- abandoning George W. Bush's model of galvanizing the GOP base and targeting independents to make up for lost social-conservative votes.
"We can't win the election the way George Bush did by just running up the score with Republicans, running up the score with evangelicals and taking what we can out of the independent mix," said Sarah Simmons, the campaign's director of strategy.
It is a risky move, though, as religious conservatives have been instrumental to Republican victories for a generation. Some social conservatives warn that the appeal to moderate swing voters will jeopardize already lukewarm support from evangelicals.
Simmons quote is rather significant, particularly as McCain is in the middle of efforts to gain the support of evangelical "leaders." A good question to ask those "leaders" is why they would support a candidate who won't try to win their followers' support the way the current president did just four years ago?
All the summer talk is directed at McCain's running-mate selection. Former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee comes up a lot, but the Associated Press's Eric Gorski rightly reported a week ago that a Huckabee in the second spot won't solve McCain's evangelical problem:
The group also agreed to sign a letter urging the McCain campaign to consider Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, as his vice presidential choice, said another participant, Phil Burress. Burress, who heads an Ohio group that helped pass an anti-gay marriage measure in that state in 2004, was among a group of conservative Christian leaders who met with McCain last week.
Burress characterized the Huckabee overture as a "suggestion, not a demand."
"This is a man you don't threaten," Burress said of McCain. "His principles are his principles. The last thing you want to do is try to force him to do something he doesn't want to do because he'd probably do the opposite."
Burress said that while Huckabee is a favorite of Christian conservatives, the most important thing is that McCain's running mate be "pro-life and pro-family." Huckabee isn't a favorite of all evangelical leaders, either; some dislike his populist message, emphasis on the environment and economic positions.
What deserves a closer look is the impact of the big social issues -- abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research -- on the evangelical vote.
Here is the AP:
Although McCain opposes abortion rights, his support for embryonic stem cell research and opposition to a federal amendment prohibiting gay marriage clashes with the widely held social conservative view.
Have those issues remained significant enough for evangelicals to avoiding voting (or voting) for McCain regardless of their other issues with him? On the other hand, is the moderate position expressed by presumed Democratic nominee Barack Obama enough to convince evangelical voters that mobilizing against him is not necessary?
More over, do these issues remain the most significant issues that will decide the evangelical vote this fall? Ultimately many of these questions will not be answered until after the November elections. But the coverage of this will only get heavier in the meantime. Check out the Los Angeles Times or this Religion News Service piece. Veteran RNS reporter Adelle Banks notes, concerning the recent evangelical politico summit in Denver:
The meeting featured conservative Christians from various sectors of evangelicalism, including African-Americans, Hispanics and younger evangelicals. Tim and Beverly LaHaye, the couple known respectively for their roles in the Left Behind book series and Concerned Women for America, were there, as were Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, former Christian Coalition president Don Hodel, and Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, an Ohio organization affiliated with Focus on the Family.
But one person who was not invited was one of the movement's most prominent voices, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who recently blasted Obama's politics and his theology, and has previously said he would not vote for McCain.
That's the thing about covering issues like this. When it doubt, find out who is in the room. And who is not.