In 2004, evangelical Christians were an essential part of the Bush’s winning coalition. Roughly 36% of his voters were Born Again or Evangelicals – a phenomenon ascribed to a perfect storm of evangelical activism and a faith-friendly, socially conservative candidate.
Well guess what: John McCain – long mistrusted by religious conservatives – actually got two million more votes from evangelicals than George Bush did. Roughly 38.5% of McCain’s vote came from evangelicals.
McCain won74% of evangelicals who voted (down a bit from George W. Bush’s 78% percen) but because evangelicals turned out in record numbers, McCain actually netted more evangelical votes than Bush.
On election day, religious conservatives delivered for the Republican party.
If they hadn’t turned out in record numbers, Obama’s rout would have been a landslide. They will undoubtedly use this data as evidence that the party either owes them or would be wise to follow a religious conservative platform.
But in other ways, the influence of the religious right on the Republican Party hurt their prospects.
First, there’s the selection of Sarah Palin as vice president. She was chosen in part to rev up the evangelical “base” and rev she did.
But several polls before the election indicated that she had turned many Americans from the Republican ticket. It was also a big factor for high profile Republican endorsements such as those of Colin Powell and Charles Fried.
What’s more, it apparently was fear of religious conservatives that led McCain to rule out several vice presidential candidates who may have had more appeal to centrists and independents, or in battle ground states. Newsweek and the New Yorker reported that John McCain was told by staff that if he chose a pro-choice running mate, religious conservatives would revolt, possibly even leading a convention floor fight against him or her. This effectively ruled out Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania (a pivotal state) or independents Joe Lieberman and Michael Bloomberg (who might have helped convince voters the Republicans could fix the economy).
Many key religious conservatives also weighed in against Mitt Romney as a running mate and, earlier in the season, against Charlie Crist, the governor of the crucial state of Florida. Religious conservatives have long been suspicious of Romney, for his Mormonism and recent conversion to the pro-life side, and Christ who, until recently, was single.
In hindsight, given the economic problems it may have been that McCain could only have won by taking a gamble of a different sort than he did – choosing a Maverick who would have appealed to the middle, or the economically anxious, rather than the base. He ruled out that path in large part because of religious conservatives.
Another sign that the religious conservative dominance may have hurt their cause: the least religious became even more Democratic. Obama won among those who never attend, Obama beat McCain 68%-29%. In all, those who never or “occasionally” go to church now make up 58% of the electorate (up from 54% last time).
Finally, religious conservatives had a significant impact on the way McCain positioned himself during the primaries. Religious conservatives make up a huge percentage of the Republican primary electorate, especially in early states: Iowa, 60%, New Hampshire 23%, South Carolina, 60%, Michigan, 39%, Nevada, 24%, Florida 39%.
Consider the case of immigration reform. Part of Obama’s victory stemmed from a dramatic shit of Latino voters toward the Democratic Party, which helped him to carry New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Nevada. Many voted for Democrats because of the economy but they also had come to believe the Republican Party was anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. Ironically, the one Republican who had tried to lead the party in a more moderate direction on immigration was John McCain. But his immigration plan was deeply unpopular with the Republican base – especially among white evangelicals, 63% of whom believed that “newcomers threaten traditional American customs and values.” As a result, he barely discussed it during the primaries or even in his convention acceptance speech – though his immigration plan was probably the best example he had of being a maverick.
As Republicans assess the damage, some will argue that they lost because they alienated centrists and independents. Others will argue that they lost because they nominated someone who wasn’t conservative enough.
To me, those in the former camp have the slightly better argument. Obama won less because of some surge of new voters than because voters in the center switched sides. On balance, John McCain made a number of choices in large part to please religious conservatives that probably cost him more than it gained him.