Amid today’s talk that Barack Obama has narrowed the God Gap, God-o-Meter checked in with Ralph Reed, who spearheaded religious outreach for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns and who pioneered such outreach for Republicans as executive director of the Christian Coalition.
What surprised you in the exit polls?
The durability–in a difficult election cycle–of the Republicans’ conservative coalition–the overwhelming margin for McCain among evangelicals was about what Bush got four years ago. I don’t think anyone would have anticipated that six or eight months ago. I don’t think that was due entirely to the Palin effect, although she helped.
But the Republican Party has to do some retooling of the party’s grassroots infrastructure, its message and the messengers because we lost some states last night that we haven’t lost in two generations, like Virginia and Indiana.
So one surprise was that evangelicals, who were seen to be despondent over the McCain and the GOP, turned out in droves.
But a truly successful majority party is a multitasking party that tends to its core supporters and reaches out to those who haven’t always felt welcome in their ranks. Obama clearly did that. He never wavered from his core liberal positions… But he reached out to evangelicals, which was a smart thing to do. Now, it didn’t’ work. e tried to emulate Martin Luther King in speaking about the challenges of the poor and left behind in a way that the white majority could hear.
Ronald Reagan did that, reaching out to Catholics and blue collar voters. And four years ago, Bush got 44-percent of the Hispanic vote even while winning 78-percent of evangelicals. So it’s not an either or–you got to do both. The party has to stay true to social conservative but also has to figure out a way to win younger voters and African Americans and Hispanics.
If Obama’s evangelical outreach failed, why was it a smart thing to do?
Because to be competitive in the South and the Midwest heartland of the country whether you win evangelicals votes are not there are a lot of moderate and independent voters that were beginning to have the view that the Democrats are hostile to religious voters. Tgat was hardening. Even if you don’t get the evangelical vote, if you’re going to carry Virginia and Florida and Indiana and Missouri, you can’t be viewed as hostile to religion and the values that people hold. So the Democrats were smart to begin talking about faith and values.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. If you look at what we did at Christian Coalition and then with the Bush campaign, [the Democrats] tried to beat us by attacking us. And it dint’ work. And after about 15 years of attacking the values message, the Democrats decided to copy it and it was smart.
That’s a welcome mat to Republicans–they shouldn’t attempt to veer way from the values message. You can say a lot about what caused this [McCain's defeat] but it wasn’t caused by the Republican Party’s values message. In two states that McCain lost, Florida and California, McCain lost even as marriage amendments won.
But do you worry that McCain’s loss will be blamed on Sarah Palin and other religious conservatives, who may have scared off independent voters?
I’m not worried at all. If you look at the polling, from the time Palin was selected around August 31 to September 20, when Lehman Brothers cratered and the DOW lost 25 percent and you have a credit crisis and financial panic, MCain was doing fairly well among independents and better among soft Democrats.
The Palin effect was across the board. It energized the base and caused independents and women to give her a second look. The gap began to yawn again around the financial panic. It was after McCain suspended his campaign and went to Washington and was not able to come up with a solution that united his party. But if you talk to people on the ground, the volunteers, the door-to-door knockers [for McCain], they were invisible until McCain selected Palin. I think it’s revisionist history to blame the bottom of the ticket for issues that were always top of the ticket.
There’s been a lot of talk about Palin’s future. How can she have a future as a national candidate if her appeal is strong but limited to the Republican base–largely its religious base?
The strong but limited appeal was based on the ticket. The ticket underperformed among independents and those outside the Republican coalition. The sinking tide lowered all boats. But I don’t think it’s fair to particularize it to her. She has not yet been tested as a candidate in a normal national campaign, where she’d get the opportunity to introduce herself to voters in a primary.
I’d argue that if Obama had not run for president and Hillary Clinton would have won the nomination and then selected Obama as her running mate, with Rev. Wright and Rezko and Ayers and his voting record, he would have never had the opportunity to litigate all that like he did in the primaries.