In Virginia Beach on February 28, McCain described Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "on the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance," comparing them with radical New York activist Al Sharpton and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The next day, he compounded his folly by telling reporters in California that the two conservative Christian leaders exercised an "evil influence" on the Republican Party and calling them "the forces of evil."
The secular media could scarcely conceal their glee as their fair-haired candidate bashed people that many of them clearly detest. Evidently, McCain thought that he could separate some evangelical leaders from others, and attract some moderate and independent voters without alienating the significant numbers of pro-life evangelicals he had attracted to his candidacy. Instead, he drove a dagger through the heart of his campaign as he created a firestorm of reaction from conservative Christians across the nation.
George W. Bush's share of the born-again vote went from 68 percent in South Carolina to 83 percent in Virginia's Republican primary the day after the Virginia Beach speech, with heavier than expected turnout in precincts identified by past voting patterns as having significant numbers of evangelical voters. Similar voting patterns were repeated in the states that voted across the nation the following week, despite McCain's half-hearted and failed attempt at an apology.
What John McCain and his advisers failed utterly to understand is that evangelicals have been so battered, vilified, and abused by the secular media and their other opponents in the nation's culture wars that they take an attack on any of their leaders as an attack on all evangelicals. This feeling of being personally assaulted was greatly intensified by McCain's shameful and erroneous comparison of Falwell and Robertson with Sharpton and Farrakhan, who are racists and hate-mongers.
Evangelicals who might disagree with Falwell and Robertson about many things rallied to the defense of their embattled fellow believers.
One can only feel sympathy for former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who endorsed McCain-then read the speech attacking Falwell and Robertson while on a plane traveling to the Virginia Beach event. Bauer must have known what a colossal blunder it was and what a devastating reaction it would provoke.
Evangelicals, many of whom had become, to differing degrees, disillusioned with the political process, have been fully re-energized and motivated. The chief beneficiary has been Bush. Will this newly reactivated evangelical involvement make a difference? In a word, yes.
Jerry Falwell has written his followers that "certain elements in both political parties have made it clear that people of faith are persona non grata in the American electoral process"- and, in response, he and other church leaders who helped him found the Moral Majority 20 years ago plan to register 10 million new voters during the next several months.
Even before the McCain attack and subsequent meltdown, it was clear that born-again voters were an essential element of any winning electoral strategy for Bush and the Republican Party. In 1996 exit polls, religious belief was the most reliable factor in how people actually voted, more than twice as strong as income or sex.
Bush's support among evangelicals has increased and is growing, but is not locked-in and cannot be taken for granted. If Bush and his advisers were to conclude that he has solidified his base and can now reach out to other constituencies by, for example, picking a non-pro-life running mate, they would be making a fatal mistake. The majority of these evangelicals are not Republicans, and if the voters feel taken for granted or "dissed" by Bush, they will be disillusioned.
Evangelical leaders cannot deliver a turned-on, turned-out evangelical vote for a candidate. Only the candidate himself can do that by either going "positive", and affirming their values and concerns, or going negative, as McCain did.
Some warnings to all involved in the campaign: If Gore and his surrogates attack Falwell and Robertson, as James Carville has pledged to do, they will only further energize their opponent's base. If Bush and his advisers decide to reach for the middle by picking a pro-choice running mate, thinking that evangelicals will have no choice but to vote for Bush against Gore, they will be making a colossal miscalculation.
The choice too many of them would make in such an event would be to stay home on Election Day, and there would not be much their leaders could do to prevent it.