Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Did Religious Conservatives Hurt or Help John McCain?

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.

Comments read comments(13)
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posted November 12, 2008 at 12:39 pm

Charlie Crist, not Christ. Let’s not elevate him to messianic status just yet.

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Charles Cosimano

posted November 12, 2008 at 7:28 pm

There is no question that the religious right hurt John McCain. He was doing fine until he pandered to the likes of Mad Dog Dobson and his ilk.

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posted November 13, 2008 at 11:02 pm

A dramatic… “what” of Latino voters?
I guess they really had to go! :-)

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John Seiler

posted November 14, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Actually, McCain lost because of the Bush-Neocon Iraq War, which is costing $3 billion – $5 billion. Bush “paid” for the war with massive borrowing and inflation, which blew out the economy, leading to the crash in September. After that, McCain never had a chance. A bad war and a bad economy lead to defeat for the incumbent party. Look at the Democrats in 1920, 1952, and 1968.
The GOP needs to heed Ron Paul’s advice: bring the troops home, cut government, cut taxes, and leave the social issues where they’re supposed to be in our federalist system — with the states.

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posted November 15, 2008 at 12:30 am

This is why I went to Obama. I couldn’t put up with the far right extremists taking over the R party any more. Call me a former republican because I do NOT expect the R leaders to listen. Even rush Limberger is in denial about this.

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posted November 15, 2008 at 8:58 am

Its a dramatic shift in Latino vote.You left out the F in the word shift. Anyway, for the last few months I kept thinking that whoever was running the show for McCain should be rewarded with a big appointment by the Obama team.

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posted November 16, 2008 at 5:39 pm

I think it is a mostly irrelevant question. McCain could not win without the support of both evangelicals and moderates/independents. I think the centrists were driven into the Obama column more by the disasters of the last eight years coupled with the unraveling of McCain’s campaign, which began right around the time he proclaimed “the fundamentals of the economy are sound” and the economy went into free fall.

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Rod Blaine

posted November 24, 2008 at 11:35 pm

> “and Christ who, until recently, was single.”
Is that “h” a typo or is there some Da Vinci Code-style subtext to this post?

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Steve Abrams

posted November 26, 2008 at 9:41 pm

This is a well written article and sums up what is happening to the evangelical side of the Republican Party. Their moral certitude and hubris have alienated them from the rest of America. They have shown that they see themselves as the holy warriors of God, doing his work to show the rest of the country the error in their ways. If they had a bit more humility and were a bit more less unwavering in their convictions they might not be so detested by a majority of Americans. God works for everyone, not just them.

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emergent pillage

posted January 21, 2009 at 11:10 am

John McCain was the one who lost it for John McCain. His history of compromise and overall political wussiness (as oppossed to his military heroism, which sadly did not transfer over to politics) were what sunk him. The best move he made, and the only one that gave him any credibility among conservatives, was selected Sarah Palin as a running mate.
But, I still find it amusing and predictable that a liberal would advocate that McCain should have appealed more to liberals. Yeah, that way, liberals would have voted for Obama, and conservatives would have no one to vote for.

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posted July 16, 2009 at 4:13 am

Let’s see. More religious nutters voted for McCain than Bush, and McCain lost by a larger margin than Bush won.

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Electric cigarette

posted March 1, 2011 at 2:18 am

Whether the religious group hurt or help John Maccain, I don’t think he was the right candidate. Maybe in another time and place but for 2008, he wasn’t good enough and the right candidate for the people. His message and they way he convey the message wasn’t good enough.
Electric cigarette

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